Predicting This Year’s Oscar Nominations Using Just Math

Awards Season
Awards Season

For the first seven decades of Oscar history, the Academy Awards and the general public were more or less in agreement on what constituted a “good” movie. Box office champions like Gone With the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, Rain Man, Titanic, and many more all won best picture and plenty of other Oscar categories. But then, after a last gasp from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004, everything changed. Over the past 20 years, it’s become routine for the No. 1 movie at the box office to not even get nominated for best picture, let alone win.

But this year, filmgoers and awards voters may have finally reached a compromise. The worldwide phenomenon “Barbenheimer” is poised to give just as much of a jolt to the Oscar race as it did to the box office. But before converting their inevitable nominations into wins, Barbie and Oppenheimer will have to go through the likes of Killers of the Flower Moon, The Holdovers, Poor Things, Past Lives, American Fiction and plenty more critical darlings. How likely are we to hear these names called out in the top categories on Tuesday morning?

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Every year — my tenth for The Hollywood Reporter — I use a mathematical model that converts each potential nominee’s résumé of precursor nominations and wins (such as results from the guild awards), critic scores and betting markets into a probability that the film, actor or script will earn that coveted nomination. The basic premise of the model is that data points that have done a better job of predicting, say, the best actress nominees in the past will be the strongest predictors of this year’s five finalists in that category, so those historically predictive inputs deserve more weight.

Let’s take a look at this year’s Oscar nominees math forecast ahead of Jan. 23’s Academy Awards nominations unveiling …

Best Picture

A half-dozen movies — Killers of the Flower Moon, Oppenheimer, Poor Things, The Holdovers, Barbie and American Fiction — are near-locks, all sitting above 95 percent to get nominated. Not too far behind are Past Lives at 93 percent and Maestro at 87 percent. Anatomy of a Fall leapt up into the ninth spot thanks in part to a strong showing at Thursday morning’s BAFTA nominations.

The final spot is very much up for grabs. If there are no upsets among the top nine (a big “if”), best international feature frontrunner The Zone of Interest appears to have the inside track, but don’t count out the next tier, which includes The Color Purple, Saltburn, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and May December.

Best Director

Christopher Nolan is 0/5 at the Oscars, with losses for Memento, Inception and Dunkirk, not to mention no personal nominations at all for films like The Dark Knight and The Prestige. But the math says that’s got a good chance to change: Nolan is the clear frontrunner for best director for Oppenheimer, and he’s a lock to be nominated.

To win the award, though, he’ll probably have to beat out Yorgos Lanthimos (Poor Things), Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon), Greta Gerwig (Barbie) and one more. That last spot could belong to Alexander Payne (The Holdovers), Jonathan Glazer (The Zone of Interest), Celine Song (Past Lives) or any number of other contenders.

Best Actor

If I had to make predictions for the four acting races right now, this one would be the toughest pick. The two Golden Globe winners — Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) and Paul Giamatti (The Holdovers) — hold the top two spots, but in which order?

For now, we know that their three fellow Screen Actors Guild nominees — Bradley Cooper (Maestro), Colman Domingo (Rustin) and Jeffrey Wright (American Fiction) — are all above 60 percent to get nominated. But Leonardo DiCaprio (Killers of the Flower Moon) sits at a strong 46 percent, making him a threat to take the nomination away from one of the top five.

Best Actress

Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) was dominating awards season when she got some surprising news Thursday morning: She didn’t crack the list of nominees at the BAFTAs. Suddenly, this race looks a lot more open than it did a week ago. She’s still on pace to be the first Native American Oscar nominee for best actress, but her fans are hoping for a whole lot more than just a nomination.

If the BAFTA snub does portend trouble for her Oscar campaign, the most likely beneficiary would be Emma Stone (Poor Things). The group below Stone includes Carey Mulligan (Maestro), Margot Robbie (Barbie), Greta Lee (Past Lives), Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a Fall) and Annette Bening (Nyad). But that tier sits below 80 percent, so getting nominated is no sure thing for any of them.

Best Supporting Actor

Pay attention to this race on Oscar night. If both best picture and best supporting actor wind up being a race between Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon and Barbie, then best supporting actor could serve as an early clue of where voters’ sympathies lie. Not that these two categories have a particularly strong record of correlation, but every little hint helps.

On the acting side, their respective representatives are Robert Downey Jr., Robert De Niro and Ryan Gosling. No one else cracks 50 percent to get nominated, but Mark Ruffalo (Poor Things), Charles Melton (May December), Sterling K. Brown (American Fiction) and Willem Dafoe (Poor Things) are the next-best bets.

Best Supporting Actress

Like Robert Downey Jr., Da’Vine Joy Randolph (The Holdovers) has a terrific Oscar résumé so far. Golden Globe win, Screen Actors Guild nomination, Critics Choice nomination, BAFTA nomination, plenty of critic circle honors and so on. This sure feels like it’s her year.

If it isn’t, the most likely people to stage an upset would be the duo who also got nominated by all four of the aforementioned groups: Danielle Brooks (The Color Purple) and Emily Blunt (Oppenheimer). One unlikely, but cool, story to keep an eye on: There’s a small chance that Sandra Hüller becomes the 12th person to be nominated for acting in two different films in the same year.

Best Original Screenplay

Something’s missing here. After garnering plenty of praise and honors for its original screenplay, Barbie got classified by the Academy as an adaptation. Suddenly, a trophy that seemed headed to Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach now belongs to a question mark.

The math likes Past Lives, Anatomy of a Fall, The Holdovers and Maestro to hear their names called, with either Air or May December grabbing the last spot. But this is one of the year’s strangest categories, so we shouldn’t be too surprised if the nominations announcement is just as strange.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best adapted screenplay was going to be a tough one to call even before the surprise inclusion of Barbie. People have made the case for Oppenheimer or American Fiction or Poor Things being the favorite in this race, and it’s hard at this juncture to say confidently that any of them are wrong. Then you add in Barbie to the mix and the picture gets that much murkier.

The data says Killers of the Flower Moon has the best chance to get the fifth nomination. But if it doesn’t (which wouldn’t say great things about its best picture chances), All of Us Strangers and The Zone of Interest look ready to pounce on the open slot.

The race-before-the-race comes to an end Tuesday morning. And then the real race begins.

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