The Oscars: How to Predict the Best Picture Winner

Tue Jan 24, 2017 15:41:16PM
The Academy Awards at the Kodak TheatreBy: Shavar Ross

I believe this strategy can correctly predict the Best Picture winner for (almost) any year's Oscars, simply by tallying up points based on what categories the films were nominated for. The thinking comes down to focusing on these categories, for these reasons, with this point system:

Best Picture Nominees

Of course, start with the best picture nominee list. Then use that list to compare to the choice categories below, and see how the points add up. For purposes of showing this a tried-and-true formula, I am going to use the 2017 nominee's list, that was just announced:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

**Included at the very end of this blog are the last 4 year's of nominees and winners, using this system, so you can see it in action.

Adapted/Original Screenplay (Award 1.5 points)

Next up, this is the most important category to consider. You can immediately eliminate all the pictures that weren't nominated for a best adapted or original screenplay. Even if they technically score more points. Prime example: Spotlight scored less points than Mad Max and The Revenant in 2016, but neither of those were nominated for best screenplay. So they still lost.

So for 2017, bye bye: Hacksaw Ridge. Only lost one, alright. Onto the second part of this category.

**There is one caveat to this rule: if no film sweeps nominations in most (if not all) the major categories below, re-tally how many points each film received in all the rest of the following categories, and follow with the rest of the strategy. It's rare, but it has happened.

The best picture is announced last, during the show. So, many times the best picture winner simply will come down to either the winner of the best adapted or original screenplay. Thinking on this is fairly simple: how well the script was written is the #1 consideration for the committee. Without a good script, it can't be called the BEST, (almost) regardless of how well it was executed. Sure, it can be nominated. But the winners win or get nods in most all the major categories. Screenplay supreme among them. Oh, and there is no better one here, adapted v original. That just annotates if the story was original, or adapted from another source.

The best picture winner doesn't HAVE to win here necessarily. But almost always they need the nomination, in any year that has other strong competitors.

Editing (Award 1 point)

These next categories you have to consider in sort of a tangled together way. But I would put editing next on this list. This category won't ever tell the story by itself. But it does accompany screenplay writing, telling you which films the committee considers the best stories told through the craft of film-making. What does the final product look like, and how effective was it? Look at the editing category. For 2017 we have:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

We have already discerned that Hacksaw Ridge is out. The other 4 all got screenplay nods. So they are all still in play. And have 1 nomination up on Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea. ..Doesn't bode well for them.

Directing (Award 1 point)

Along with editing, sometimes directing nominations aren't directly connected to the best picture winner. A lot of times in fact the director winner for a film WON'T win for best picture, as this category can all too often act as a sort of consolation prize. 'You did a really good job directing that film, it just wasn't complete enough in all the important categories to win it all'. Something like that.

That being said, you have to look at the landscape. This year is particularly interesting, as there's a lot of repeat nominations:

La La Land
Hacksaw Ridge
Manchester by the Sea

I stand by Hacksaw Ridge being out. That does give Manchester by the Sea a screenplay and directing nod. That's interesting. It's still technically in play, but only as a dark horse, as the other 3 have nods in all 3 major categories so far. Moving on.

Lead and Supporting Acting Nominees (Zero points, but could be the wildcard tiebreaker)

Writing and execution (editing, directing) nominations show you which films the committee was most impressed with for the year, on the whole. But the acting nods show you which performances to them stood out, of course. I say this because a film can also get nominated for best picture because it has a few (or even just one) very strong performances. This can be deceiving though. You have to consider the context. If a film wasn't nominated for screenplay, directing or editing, but got acting nods and best picture consideration, it won't win. If there is overlap though, it very well might. For 2017:

La La Land got 2 nominations. Best Actor and Best Actress. This means the academy really liked this film. It's getting nominated all over the place. At this point, consider La La Land a strong front runner.

Manchester by the Sea got 3 nominations here. I see this an indication that they saw this film as a strong performance lead film, but not a best picture. Look for this film to win at least one of those nods. Same goes for Fences.

Cinematography (Award 1 point)

You start looking at these last three categories, for a year like 2017, when 2 or more films check all the overlap boxes. Right now, we have - La La Land, Arrival, and Moonlight that have gotten nods in all major categories.

For cinematography, this shows how well the committee enjoyed the overall presentation of the film. Style and otherwise. An accompanying category to editing and directing. For 2017, all 3 are there. Damn. Moving on again.

Sound Editing / Sound Mixing (Award .5 points per)

These are 2 different categories, to be sure. Even though it's hard to tell the difference most years. Regardless, how well did our final 3 fair here?

Arrival got both nods.
La La Land got both nods.
Moonlight, none.

So what can be made of all of this? (Add up the points)

Using 2017 as an example year, we started off with 9 films. Through considering other category nominations, we can very certainly whittle the winner down to one of 3 films: La La Land, Arrival, and Moonlight. I believe in that order. The point tally, if you were playing along at home, is:

La La Land - 5.5 (2 main acting nods are the wildcard here though)
Arrival - 5.5
Moonlight - 4.5
Hacksaw Ridge - 3
Hell or High Water - 2.5
Manchester by the Sea - 2.5
Lion - 2.5
Fences - 1.5
Hidden Figures - 1.5

But that's not to say La La Land will win. There are a few last things that I consider, when it comes down to a dead heat like this (which is rare, by the way. Last year, I correctly picked Spotlight to win using just this system, without much difficulty.)

1. What are these films? What do they stand for culturally, artistically and otherwise? What genre are they? Were they acting centric, visually stunning, etc?

La La Land is a musical, first off. And apparently the Academy very much enjoyed every single aspect of this film: the 2 lead actors, the directing, the editing, the writing, the cinematography and the sound engineering. La La Land is also a snarky love story. Told in a very twisting, clever way. It's original, and visually stylistic. From what I can tell, all things the Academy loves, and this makes it a film I could totally see the Academy wanting to be remembered as 2017's best.

Arrival is sci-fi, through and through. Sci-fi gets nominated all the time. Hardly ever wins. But it's sci-fi with an independent film bent, and my personal favorite film of the year. I am rooting for Arrival. And I believe through this math/science equation it could win. It wasn't nominated for acting nods, but that doesn't matter. That just shows the committee was so impressed with this film, that the acting didn't have to be 'the best'. Arrival transcended the typical sci-fi genre epically, into pure human drama. A feat the Academy really loves.

Finally you have Moonlight. The dark horse of the 3. Given that it was nominated for acting nods, driven by strong performances, this film is heartbreaking a majority of the time to watch. It's dark, depressing, emotional and tells of the trials and tribulations of a young black kid, growing up through a maze of confusion, with his heroin-addicted dead beat mother, drug dealer turned father figure, and friends betraying him.. all things that haunt him well into becoming a flawed adult. A 'trial by fire' story. I believe this won't win, and made it through the equation because of how strong the performances and storytelling was.

2.) Gut instinct.

Comes down to gut instinct sometimes, when it's this close. Arrival vs La La Land. One will win, I would beat most anything on it. My head says La La Land. My heart, the latter. ... I can't bitch out and not predict the winner though, after ALL that preamble. So, without ado, the 2017 winner will be....


**A few last comments to consider:

Remember this strategy is based solely on the nomination list. But if you are watching in real time, it's even easier to predict. Once you have this point system, AND you see who actually won for: Screenplay, Directing, Editing, Cinematography, and Sound Engineering, along with the acting winners, you should be able to very easily discern the winner before it's officially announced.

At the very least, it's a fun party trick, if you are watching with a group of friends. I have never been wrong in real time. The Oscars really are that predictable, once you see the trends, year in, year out.

Some past winners and tallies, for your review:

Mad Max and Revenant both scored 4.0. But neither got the screenplay nod.
Spotlight (the winner) got a 3.5 AND the screenplay.
The Martian was next up, at 2.5.

Birdman - 5.5 (it won)
American Sniper - 4.5
Grand Budapest - 4.5
and so on with lesser scores...

Gravity - 4.0 but no screenplay nod
12 Years A Slave - 3.5 (it won)
Captain Phillips - 3.5
American Hustle - 3.5
Nebraska - 3.5

2014 was a hard year to call. You had to think of the 4 films that got the most points. The acting nods tiebreaker only took out Captain Phillips. American Hustle got both Best Actor /Actress nods, letting you know it was a performance lead piece. It was out. Came down to a film about 'slaves rising up' vs 'an old man dealing with dementia, shoot in black and white'. Easy gut check call there.

2013: (the year I was wrong)
Life of Pi - 5.5
Argo - 3.5 (it won)
Silver Linings Playbook - 3.5
Django Unchained - 3.0
Zero Dark Thirty - 3.0
and so on with lesser results

What can I say? The system isn't 100% full proof. So maybe don't bet your mortgage at Vegas on this system alone. I believe it's solid, and accurate somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-90% of the time. At the very least, you can whittle down the top 2-3 nominees, and roll the dice.

But even the Oscars can surprise you sometimes. I was certainly surprised, and frankly appalled, when Argo won. I felt Life of Pi was the best film that year. And apparently so did the Academy when it came to every other facet of the film's worth. But, such is life.

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