Oscar Nomination Odds: What the Math Says

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) uses math to predict and write about the Oscars. He recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied math, and he now works as a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

On Thursday morning, up to ten films will gain Oscar immortality. They will be joined by five directors, ten actors, and ten actresses. Needless to say, it's a nervous week around Hollywood. Every potential nominee is wondering - what are my odds?

That's where I come in. For the past four years, I have used nothing but data and statistics to predict the Oscars, and once again I will be applying my method to handicap the nominees. Last year, my model went 7-for-8 on Best Picture nominees, and 17-for-20 across the four acting categories.

I only use metrics such as other award shows, guild awards, and aggregate critic scores - no personal opinions or hunches go into these percentages. My method involves determining how significant each predictor has been in the past, and then weighting this year's Oscar data accordingly.

Best Picture


Note: These standings do not yet include the Directors Guild nominations, which come out on Tuesday, after this article was submitted. After that announcement, I'll update these numbers on Twitter (@BensOscarMath).

Starting from the top, it will come as a surprise to no one that Spotlight, Max Max, and The Revenant are basically locks to get nominations.

The next tier is The Big Short and Carol. Neither has a perfect resume: Carol got left out by the Producers Guild, and neither won any Golden Globes. But they both have a lot going for them as well: BAFTA nominations, Golden Globe nominations, and places on the American Film Institute's top ten list. They could still miss out, but it would be a surprise.

Then come the interesting movies, the borderline cases, that will largely depend upon how many films the Academy chooses to nominate this year. In the four years of a variable category size, though it's officially allowed to bounce between 5 and 10, either 8 or 9 films have made the cut each year.

That means all of the movies from Inside Out on down are longshots - not impossible, but they need a little luck. Look for The Martian, Room, Sicario, Brooklyn, and Bridge of Spies to be among the best bets to round out the most prestigious category. Sicario's inclusion may surprise the most people, but nominations from the Producers Guild, the Critics Choice awards, and the American Cinema Editors are nothing to sneeze at.

Best Director

The Directors Guild is the best predictor for this category, so it's premature to publish percentages until the DGA announces their nominee list on Tuesday. Once they do, I'll post the standings via Twitter, on @BensOscarMath.

Best Actor


This year, Best Actor is a very top-heavy race. Six actors come in at well over 50%, and everyone else hardly registers. That's what happens when the BAFTAs and SAGs agree on four of their five nominees. As for the two on that list they did not agree on - the SAGs chose Depp while the BAFTAs went with Damon - the latter earned an additional boost with a Golden Globe victory Sunday night. Yes, it may have been in the comedy/musical category, an odd placement for The Martian, but each of the last four Golden Globe comedic lead actor champions went on to secure an Oscar nomination.

Best Actress


Best Actress is a decidedly different race from Best Actor. There is a clear Tier 1, led by Brie Larson, with Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan not far behind. Jennifer Lawrence, buoyed by her Golden Globe win in the comedy/musical category, comes in fourth. But then there is a slew of actresses, none of whom has put together enough of a resume to convince the math that she firmly belongs in fifth. Everyone below Lawrence has such a low percentage that it's practically a toss-up.

Best Supporting Actor


In all likelihood, this is an epic race between six deserving men for five spots. #1 Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and #6 Michael Shannon (99 Homes) are separated by a mere 16 percentage points. But three others cracked double-digit percentages - del Toro, Tremblay, and Hardy - so there is still ample room for an upset. A notable absence from this list is Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), but his chances took a hit when he failed to secure either a SAG or Golden Globe nomination.

Best Supporting Actress


Strangely, Best Supporting Actress this year is as much about quality of performance as it is about so-called "category fraud." Is Rooney Mara really in a supporting role in Carol? How about Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl? Common sense might say no, but their studios are campaigning for them to be included as supporting nominees, presumably gambling that it's an easier category to win. And, in Mara's case, that would prevent her from competing with Cate Blanchett, a likely contender for Best Actress for the same film. But the Academy has the final say, and if they choose to overrule the studios on those two nominees, this is suddenly a wide-open race.

We can study the odds all we want, but until the Academy makes their Thursday morning announcement, there's nothing left to do but await the end of ballot counting. And then the real race begins.