The model relies on the idea that the best looks into the minds of Oscar voters are the guild and press prizes that precede the Academy Awards. We have the whole in-depth methodology below, but here’s the gist: Oscar nominees get points for being nominated for or winning other awards that historically predict the Oscars. The better a historical predictor a given award is, the more points it’s worth.
Because it’s still very early in Oscar season and the only hard win data we have is from the press awards, the initial predictions below should be taken as something between a note on the current state of the race and a way to inform which upcoming award shows you watch live and which ones you just DVR. So based on what we know so far, here’s the state of the race for the top six Oscar categories!
This race is the most wide open. There are many preceding awards left to go, and the field is large (eight films), which makes it hard to pick a leader. This weekend’s Producers Guild of America awards ceremony should give us a little clarity; the guild’s award for best theatrical picture is the second-most-predictive award we follow for the best picture Oscar.
At the moment, “Spotlight” leads the race with 14 percent of all possible points locked up. It is followed closely by “The Revenant” (11 percent of possible points) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (10 points).
“The Revenant” won the Golden Globe for best drama, but it’s important to keep in mind that despite the popularity of the Globes, the winner of that award matches up with the Academy’s choice only about half the time. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has benefited from lots of nominations, as well as wins from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. Whether that success will carry through to the Producers Guild awards remains to be seen.
All the awards that have been announced so far have been voted on by members of the press, and while that group does have an inside track on perceiving winners and a means of controlling the narrative, it does not vote on the Academy Awards. It’s worth noting, for instance, that “Boyhood” did very well among the press last year but “Birdman” won the best picture Oscar after thriving at the industry awards.
“Spotlight” is ahead this year because it received the most nominations in the categories we track and thanks to its best picture win at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, which are by far the most predictive of any of the press awards.
What to watch: This is where we’d greatly benefit from more data. Whichever film wins at the Producers Guild awards will pick up a quarter of the remaining points and will be guaranteed front-runner status until at least February. After that, the key event to watch will be the Directors Guild of America’s top award. Any film that sweeps those two will be a strong favorite for best picture through the rest of February. If two films split them, we’ll have a serious race on our hands.
Thanks to a win at the Critics’ Choice Awards, George Miller is leading the race for best director, but it’s still too early to draw conclusions. He’s closely followed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who has pulled the most nominations.
What to watch: It’s worth waiting two weeks for the Directors Guild to weigh in before declaring a front-runner because whoever wins that group’s top award has won the Oscar 84 percent of the time over the past 25 years.
Last year, this category was by far the hardest to predict: Iñárritu (“Birdman”) won at the Directors Guild, but Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) won everything else. In the end, Iñárritu took home the Oscar. When in doubt, roll with the Directors Guild. If it picks Miller, he will ride into Valhalla shiny and chrome. If it picks Iñárritu, Tom McCarthy or Adam McKay, that director will become the leader, and we’ll turn to the BAFTAs — the awards from the British Academy — to see whether we have a race.
Brie Larson is way out ahead on this one. She won at the Globes, Critics’ Choice, Chicago Film Critics and the National Board of Review awards. Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett command most of the remaining points, mainly because of their many nominations.
Based on our model, this is a three-woman race, mainly because Charlotte Rampling and Jennifer Lawrence aren’t nominated for a Screen Actors Guild or BAFTA award and thus can’t score those points on the board.
What to watch: The SAG award will give us the best look at the winner moving forward, but it’s worth keeping in mind that best actress is one of the harder categories to predict. All the prior awards are historically somewhat good at picking the Oscar winner, but no award is all that great at it. The SAG gets it right most often, but don’t sleep on the BAFTAs or even the Satellite Awards, handed out by the International Press Academy. If either of those goes to a woman not nominated for the Oscar, it will shake up the race and make this tough category even more difficult to gauge.
Apparently some guy named Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar. Never heard of him.
What to watch: The SAG award for best actor is insanely predictive (In the past 25 years, only the Directors Guild has a better track record, for predicting the best director Oscar). Matt Damon isn’t nominated for a SAG award, but if any of the other three Oscar nominees wins the SAG, the Oscar race will get competitive quickly. If Leo wins the SAG award, this category goes from a race to a coronation.
Total toss-up! Alicia Vikander and Kate Winslet are neck and neck. The Critics’ Choice Award and the Golden Globe for best supporting actress have the same historical predictive rate in this category, and Vikander won the former while Winslet won the latter.
What to watch: Both the BAFTA and the SAG awards for best supporting actress are predictive of this category, the latter more so. Winslet, Vikander and Rooney Mara are up for both. Whoever wins the SAG award will be the instant front-runner, but if the BAFTA goes to someone else, this category gets dicey fast.
This category is interesting because no award is a kingmaker. The most historically predictive show is the Golden Globes — where Sylvester Stallone won this year; he also took home the Critics’ Choice award — but that award is voted on by the press and so not weighted as highly in our model.
This is where it gets interesting, though. Stallone isn’t nominated in the best supporting actor categories at either the SAG or the BAFTAs. Mark Rylance and Christian Bale are nominated for both, and Mark Ruffalo (“Spotlight”) is up for the BAFTA.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Rocky loses at the end of “Rocky” and probably considered it just an honor to be nominated for the big boxing match to begin with.
What to watch: Whether the industry insiders agree with the press that Stallone should win over well-regarded working actor Rylance should be clear once the SAG awards and BAFTAs come through. Still, this will likely be a very close category!
How we figure this out
Here’s the gist: We can’t poll the 7,000-odd people who vote on the Academy Awards. We don’t even have a good idea of who exactly they are. This means that unlike the methods we use to predict, say, the Iowa caucuses, the problem we’re trying to solve is pretty much stripped of input data.
But we do — or at least will, soon enough — have some insight into how the Academy will vote, based on a whole batch of other awards given out in the weeks leading up to the big show. Some of those are voted on by some of the same people — the actors, directors and producers — who make up the Academy membership. It’s an incomplete picture, but so are polls. So we handle the outcome of those events the same way that the FiveThirtyEight election models handle polls: We figure out how meaningful each is based on a historical predictive track record to determine how much we should weight each one and how much credibility to assign it.
We pull from press awards 1 and insider awards. 2 We determine the 25-year rolling success rate of each of the prizes in predicting the eventual Academy Award winner and square that success rate to determine a score for each award. 3 Films or people who are nominated for a given award get one-fifth of the resulting points, and winners get the full weight. It’s a simple metric, but it’s worked in the past to get a look into the state of the race.
Right now, we know the nominees for all the awards and the winners for six of the seven press awards. The nominations are helpful, but they don’t give us anywhere near a complete picture. As we get closer to the Oscars — after the Producers Guild awards this weekend, the American Cinema Editors and Screen Actors Guild awards next week, and so on — that picture will get much, much clearer.
In large part because our model gives partial credit for nominations, a majority of the awards points have already been distributed: Only about 39 percent of the maximum possible points remain to be distributed in the best picture category, while in the other five top categories, about a third of the points have yet to be claimed. But those points — particularly for highly predictive awards like the Directors Guild and SAG prizes — will swing the races.