Predicting the winners using maths

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With the 2020 Oscars coming up this weekend, all eyes are on who will win at the Academy Awards — and what they will wear on the red carpet, of course. In the former world, though, it’s entirely possible to have a good go at predicting just about everything that will happen at the Oscars by using maths and looking into the past.

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The Oscars might be the big beast of cinema awards ceremonies, but they are not the only one. There are famous ceremonies like the BAFTAs and Golden Globes, of course, but there are also numerous smaller awards events, often organised by particular guilds representing jobs within the film industry. This incorporates the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Producers Guild of America Awards and the Directors Guild of America Awards — among many, many others. Even the film critics get to have their say via the Critics’ Choice Awards.

When all of these precursor awards are crunched together, they often create a very clear picture of what is likely to win on the night.

Best Picture

George MacKay in ‘1917’. (Credit: eOne)

Nominees: 1917, Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ‘66), The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite

Going into this year’s awards season — several weeks shorter than usual due to an early date for the Oscars ceremony — there was no runaway favourite. Throughout the month of January, though, Sam Mendes’ First World War thriller 1917 has emerged as that clear frontrunner. It scored victories at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, PGA Awards and DGA Awards, hoovering up more precursors than any other title.

The PGA and DGA wins are particularly useful in prediction as each of their top awards has a 70% record for matching Best Picture over the course of the last 20 years. The DGA’s predicting power had been neutered somewhat in the last six years, with the Academy showcasing a penchant for splitting Best Picture and Best Director. That doesn’t look likely to happen this year though.

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If there’s a fly in the ointment for 1917, though, it’s the SAG Awards. The movie was entirely shut out by the guild, which shares a lot of membership with the Academy’s acting contingent — its largest branch. For years, it was a hard and fast statistical truth that, in order to win an Oscar, a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble was a necessity. However, the last two Best Picture winners — Green Book and The Shape of Water — did so without even landing a spot on the SAG shortlist. That award, this year, was won by the terrific Parasite.

A still from Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. (Curzon)

The other factor counting in 1917’s favour is the preferential ballot used to decide Best Picture. Rather than simply picking one winner — as they do in every other category — voters rank the contenders for Best Picture from one to nine. In a similar way to the Alternative Vote electoral system once put to a referendum in the UK, the movie with the lowest number of first place votes is eliminated in each round, with those voters having their second place preferences taken into account, and so on until a film can claim more than 50% of votes.

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This is a good idea in principle. With a maximum of 10 movies in the category, a movie could conceivably win with just over 10% of the vote on an ordinary ballot. The other side of that double-edged sword, though, is the fact that this system often rewards a movie that’s safe and appeals to everyone, rather than a risk-taker.

1917 feels like a clear consensus choice this year. It’s technically impressive, very well-made and has support from a variety of the guilds — each theoretically representing a branch of Academy voters. Almost every other movie has some sort of banana skin attached to it, whether it’s the Netflix factor (The Irishman, Marriage Story), a divisive critical and audience response (Joker, OUATIH, Jojo Rabbit) or the fact it’s in a foreign language (Parasite).

All of those films will get plenty of first-place votes, but they’ll also turn up at the bottom of many other lists. A movie like 1917, which might get as many number two votes as it does number ones, is the clear beneficiary of this system.

Prediction: 1917

Best Director

Sam Mendes poses with the award for Best Director for his work on the film ‘1917’ at the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Nominees: Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), Sam Mendes (1917), Todd Phillips (Joker), Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), Quentin Tarantino (OUATIH),

The Directors Guild of America is, as previously mentioned, a solid way of predicting the Best Picture winner. It’s even better at predicting Best Director, though, with the two awards only diverging on four occasions in the last 30 years. It hasn’t happened since the 2013 ceremony, at which the Oscars garlanded Ang Lee for Life of Pi, having not even nominated DGA winner Ben Affleck for Argo, Affleck’s film did, however, win Best Picture and so he probably had very few complaints.

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With that in mind, 2020’s DGA winner Sam Mendes can consider himself in pole position to win his second directing Oscar, after previously winning for American Beauty. He has won every other precursor too, scooping the Globe and the BAFTA while sharing the Critics’ Choice Award with Bong Joon-ho for Parasite.

The South Korean movie is the only real alternative in this category based on the precursors and, if the Academy, decides to split Best Picture and Best Director again, it’s likely Bong who will benefit. This year looks pretty sewn up for Mendes though.

Prediction: Sam Mendes (1917)

Acting Categories

Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger, Laura Dern and Brad Pitt are Oscars frontrunners. (Credit: Joel C Ryan/Invision/Chris Pizzello/AP)