Oscars 2020: Predicting the winners using history, maths and science

An Oscar Statue is displayed at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball press preview. (Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
An Oscar Statue is displayed at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball press preview. (Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

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 (Prediction: 1917)

George MacKay in '1917'. (Credit: eOne)
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 <i>Parasite</i>. (Curzon)
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.

(Credit: DreamWorks)
(Credit: DreamWorks)

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.

Best Director (Prediction: Sam Mendes, 1917)

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)
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.

Acting Categories

Predictions — Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix, Joker), Best Actress (Renée Zellweger, Judy), Best Supp Actor (Brad Pitt, OUATIH), Best Supp Actress (Laura Dern, Marriage Story)

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

Perhaps as a side effect of the truncated season, there’s very little intrigue in the acting categories. With the Globes, BAFTAs, SAGs and Critics’ Choice Awards all handing out the same four prizes to the same four winners, there seems to be very little chance of a surprise to rival Olivia Colman’s Best Actress victory last year.

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Based on every possible metric available, the four winners will be the same ones we’ve seen take to countless stages in countless fancy outfits to thank the same crop of people. At least Joaquin Phoenix and Brad Pitt can be relied upon to say something a little unusual in their acceptance speeches.

Best Original Screenplay (Prediction: Parasite)

Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig in whodunnit thriller 'Knives Out'. (Credit: Lionsgate)
Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig in whodunnit thriller 'Knives Out'. (Credit: Lionsgate)

Nominees: 1917, Knives Out, Marriage Story, OUATIH, Parasite

The screenplay categories are a little harder to call, but there is again a helpful guild we can turn to in the shape of the Writers Guild of America. This year, they gave their Best Original Screenplay prize to Parasite, while it was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which emerged victorious at the Golden Globes and also won at the Critics’ Choice Awards. The crucial thing to note, however, is that neither the Globes nor the Critics’ Choice Awards share voting members with the Academy, whereas the writing guild does. However, Tarantino was not eligible for the WGA Awards as he is not a member of the union, opening the door for Parasite.

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This one is a difficult category to call, but Quentin Tarantino’s LA epic has stalled momentum-wise, even in this rather short awards season. With Parasite a favourite among many, and unlikely to be rewarded in Best Picture or Best Director, this is likely to be where it gets love. Original Screenplay is often a category which rewards unconventional Oscar season material, from Spike Jonze’s Her to Jordan Peele’s Get Out in recent years.

If 1917 does somehow manage to win, though, it goes from being a good bet for Best Picture to an absolute dead cert. Even the fact it’s nominated is a great sign for Mendes’ film.

Best Adapted Screenplay (Prediction: Jojo Rabbit)

Taika Waititi plays an imaginary friend version of Adolf Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'. (Credit: Fox)
Taika Waititi plays an imaginary friend version of Adolf Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'. (Credit: Fox)

Nominees: The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, The Two Popes

Much like its bedfellow category, it’s worth taking a look at the WGA Awards when predicting Best Adapted Screenplay. As the Golden Globes merge their screenplay categories and went for OUATIH, they’re no use here. The Critics’ Choice Awards opted to give its Adapted Screenplay prize to Little Women, while the WGA plumped for Jojo Rabbit — Taika Waititi’s divisive Second World War satire, in which the writer-director himself appears as an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler.

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Little Women has been given little recognition other than that one nod and so it seems unlikely to make a splash at the Oscars. Jojo Rabbit, meanwhile, has constantly hovered near the top of the race and, with that WGA win under its belt, it’s the odds-on favourite.

Best Animated Feature (Prediction: Klaus)

A still from <i>Klaus</i>. (Netflix)
A still from Klaus. (Netflix)

Nominees: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, I Lost My Body, Klaus, Missing Link, Toy Story 4

Animation is, historically, the easiest category to predict at the Oscars. The method is simple too, and doesn’t require any geekery involving guilds and spreadsheets. It’s as easy as: is there a Pixar film nominated? The Disney subsidiary has won nine awards from a dozen nominations prior to this year, most recently with Coco and Inside Out.

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This year, however, things are a little more open. Toy Story 4 was a fun movie, but not one that blew anybody away in the way that Toy Story 3 did a decade ago. This leaves the door open for a different winner. Laika’s box office struggler Missing Link was the surprise winner at the Golden Globes and Klaus won at the BAFTAs.

Most significantly, though, it was the Netflix animation about Christmas which swept the board at the Annie Awards — voted for by the animation industry. The film won all seven of its categories and, with all of the momentum at its back, looks set to repeat that feat on Oscar night.

Best Cinematography (Prediction: 1917)

Robert Pattinson in 'The Lighthouse'. (Credit: Universal)
Robert Pattinson in 'The Lighthouse'. (Credit: Universal)

Nominees: 1917, The Irishman, Joker, The Lighthouse, OUATIH

The Academy broke the habit of a lifetime a few years ago when it finally gave maestro cinematographer Roger Deakins an award for his work on the visually masterful Blade Runner 2049 — his 14th Oscar nomination. Just two years later, he seems poised to win again for his work on the innovative, almost-single-shot portrayal of events in 1917.

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As with all of the major categories, there’s a guild award worth looking at here. The American Society of Cinematographers Award went to Deakins this year, marking his fifth win — tied for the most ever with fellow one-shot expert Emmanuel Lubezki, who made Birdman and The Revenant. With 1917 in for a good night across the major and technical categories, and the precursors in his favour, Deakins will win again.

Best Editing (Prediction: Parasite)

Christian Bale gets behind the wheel as Ken Miles in 'Le Mans 66'. (Credit: Fox)
Christian Bale gets behind the wheel as Ken Miles in 'Le Mans 66'. (Credit: Fox)

Nominees: Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ‘66), The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Parasite

The Eddie Awards — handed out by the American Cinema Editors group — have matched the Oscar for Best Editing 75% of the time over the last 20 years, with the guild’s membership handing their award to Bohemian Rhapsody before anyone had really predicted its Oscar shock. Much like the Globes, they give out prizes for Drama and Musical/Comedy each year, with this year’s awards going to Parasite and Jojo Rabbit.

Much like Roma last year, Parasite seems likely to do well in other categories outside of Best Picture, with the Academy seemingly more cavalier about what they will allow to win awards away from the big one. With that in mind, this could be another historic victory for Parasite — the first South Korean film to compete at the Oscars.

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The Academy Awards are due to air on Sunday, 9 February.