4 Rules to Win Your Oscar Pool

NYT Times’ Nate Silver is providing awards-season insight for Carpetbagger leading up to the 83rd Academy Awards on Feb. 27. Mr. Silver is the author of The Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog, which is devoted to the analysis of statistics and data in politics and other areas.

Oscar shaped chocolate statuettes are seen at ... AP

mmmmm…chooclate!

 

Two years ago, I tried to predict the Oscar winners for New York Magazine by crunching data from the last 30 years of awards history. The project was a mixed success. I got 4 out of 6 categories right, an acceptable score on paper. But several of the choices (like “Slumdog Millionaire” for Best Picture) were giveaways and conversely, the system’s longshot pick — Taraji P. Henson for her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — was a total flop.

Okay, so the system isn’t exactly Watson (not that Watson doesn’t make mistakes too). Nor, really, could any system be when trying to predict the behavior of the relatively fickle group of human beings who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But I’ve dusted off the database (literally: it was on an old desktop that had begun to gather moss) and aimed to simplify it — boiling it down to a few core factors that have been especially reliable predictors in the past. The idea is to focus on those variables that have some logical meaning rather than being statistical artifacts. Here, then, are the rules-of-thumb for predicting the Oscars:

1. By far the best predictors are the winners of other major awards, like the Golden Globes. That isn’t rocket science, I know. But there is some utility in knowing which awards have the best track records in which categories. In the best picture category, for instance, awards given out by ‘outsiders’ like critics tend to be far less reliable predictors than those given out by professionals like directors and producers.

2. A nomination for best picture is a boon in the other cateogries. If one nominee for best actress appears in an Oscar-nominated film and another does not, the one in the nominated film is more likely to win. Unfortunately, now that 10 rather than five movies are nominated for Best Picture, this state of affairs is less likely to happen.

3. The Academy — which can take itself very seriously — is relatively unfriendly toward comedies. If two candidates otherwise seem tied, lean toward the more dramatic film. The exception is in the supporting actor and actress categories, where the Academy likes to have a bit more fun and playing comedic or otherwise quirky and offbeat roles may actually be an advantage.

4. Hollywood has some tendency to “spread the wealth” — generally, it hurts a nominee’s chances if she’s won in her category before. The converse is also somewhat true — if someone has been nominated a lot but has not won, they may build up some sympathy points. This is not absolute, however — otherwise, Meryl Streep would not have been shut out in her last 11 best actress nominations.

That is pretty much what we have to work with. By contrast, other variables like release dates, Rotten Tomatoes scores and box office grosses (otherwise, how could “Avatar” have been upset last year?) don’t seem to matter, at least not once you’ve accounted for these other factors.

Of course, there might also be all sorts of intangible dimensions to voter psychology that are fun to speculate about, but are hard to quantify. And the Academy can go through different moods — recall for instance, its tendency to favor glossy but somewhat vapid films like “Terms of Endearment” during parts of the 1980s. So while our database goes back to 1979, we put more weight on more recent winners.

Here is how the system handicaps the odds in the six major cateogies:

BEST PICTURE As I’ve noted, although “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” have won a roughly equal number of awards, “The King’s Speech” has won those that matter most, like the awards from the directors’ and producers’ guilds. The statistical case for “The Social Network” rests on its victory at the Golden Globes, which does have some predictive power; the psychological one probably depends on it now having become the underdog since “The King’s Speech” has been on such a winning streak. Nevertheless — although we’re retiring the pretense of decimal-point precision this year in favor of a softer, gentler approach — “The King’s Speech” is overwhelmingly more likely to win.

BEST DIRECTOR Often the most boring award since it so closely tracks to best picture, but this year is a potential exception. Betting markets, even though they have “The King’s Speech” heavily favored for best picture, have “The Social Network’s” David Fincher slightly favored for best director. And our system likes Mr. Fincher, too.

The most formidable piece of evidence is that the awards were split in exactly this fashion at the Baftas (the British equivalent of the Oscars), with “The King’s Speech” winning best film but Mr. Fincher best director. Also, when there has been a split between the two categories, it is sometimes the more adventurous film (think “Brokeback Mountain” to “Crash”) that wins best director while the other wins the big prize; this can be observed, for instance, in the fact that awards given out by critics (almost all of which were won by “The Social Network”) do have some predictive power for Best Director, which they do not for best picture.

Another factor is that if it does not win best director, “The Social Network” may be entirely shut out of the major awards; just one of its actors (Jesse Eisenberg) was nominated and he is unlikely to win. Finally, going by the sympathy points theory, Mr. Fincher has been nominated before (for “Benjamin Button”, which was also shut out) while the director of “The King’s Speech,” Tom Hooper, has not.

Are you persuaded? It’s a tentative case — and notably, Mr. Hooper won the Directors Guild of America award, which is the single best predictor of the lot. But you have to take a few risks to win an Oscar pool, and predicting the split here is a pretty decent one.

BEST ACTOR No need to get fancy here: Colin Firth has swept every major award and is the overwhelming favorite.

BEST ACTRESS. Annette Bening won the Golden Globe for her role as Nic in “The Kids Are All Right”, but Natalie Portman has won the majority of awards and — recalling our rule-of-thumb from above — the Academy tends to prefer serious roles to comedic ones when the choice is otherwise close. Plus, everyone seems either to have loved “The Black Swan” or thought it so terrible that Ms. Portman deserves some empathy for having competently played such a ridiculous character (guess which group I’m in?). A small factor helping Ms. Bening is that she has twice been nominated before without winning (for “American Beauty” and “Being Julia”), but this is Ms. Portman’s award to lose.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR. Geoffrey Rush made this mildly more interesting by winning the Bafta. But despite one recent coup — the Baftas rightly picked Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine” when most other awards did not — the Brits have a fairly poor track record in this category and the weight of the evidence points toward Christian Bale for his performance as a crack-addicted former boxer in “The Fighter.” If you wanted to pick a long-shot, in fact, you might do just as well to go with Mark Ruffalo from “The Kids Are All Right,” since his was the only comedic performance nominated and since that’s actually an advantage in this category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Here too, the Baftas split from the other awards by picking Helena Bonham Carter rather than Melissa Leo. But the victory was a bit tainted since neither Ms. Leo nor the lovely Hailee Steinfeld (whom the Baftas quite rightly considered a leading actress for her role in “True Grit”) was nominated.

So could Ms. Steinfeld win instead? She could; this is among the hardest categories to predict, and we did adjust the system some for the fact that there is some confusion over her role. Nevertheless, Ms. Leo won both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards in direct competition with her, and so the case for Ms. Steinfeld is more sentimental than statistical.

New York Times

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