Your Guide to Predicting the Oscars

Everyone has a different relationship with film, but it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t even heard of the Academy Awards. Maybe you’ve heard of them, but don’t follow the film circuit. Maybe you were thinking of watching some of the films, but didn’t know where to start or which would be most likely to win anything. Or maybe, like me, you try to watch all the nominees every year and force your friends to take part in a prediction bracket. Whatever the case, everyone’s a little curious about how the Oscar winners are decided! If you’re looking to get a little more engaged with the biggest film awards in North America and arguably the world, this article is for you.

Step 1 - Understanding the Academy

To predict the Oscars, you have to explore the minds of the people who get to pick the winners every year, and that would be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). They’re the ones getting shoutouts from the winners every year, (“I’d like to thank the Academy!”) and who take part in the voting system that ultimately decides the winners. Academy membership is by invitation only, provided to those who have “demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures,” so yes, the Academy does (theoretically) know what they’re doing. But how do the people in the Academy vote for the winners?

There is a whole process as to how the nominees get chosen by the Academy, but we’re not going to worry about that too much; the reason nominees were picked doesn’t seem to accurately point the way to the winner. Instead, let’s start with the official results voting process. For most of the twenty-four Oscars categories, the Academy members who get to vote are those in the actual field of the category; for example, “Best Cinematography” will be decided by the branch of cinematographers. However there are some clear exceptions to this. “Best Foreign Film” and “Best Documentary” are decided upon by special screening groups made up of members across every branch, and every Academy member gets to vote on “Best Picture.” This is important because the specificity of the categories is absolutely integral to the winner - a “Best Editing” nominee is not going to win if it’s better than the other films in general; the editing is truly the sole factor you should be considering.

It is incredibly important to know the Academy’s biases in order to predict which films they’ll favour. To begin, let’s address the elephant in the room—yes, the Academy has been known to be racist. With the #OscarsSoWhite movement last year, this issue has come into the spotlight, but it’s nothing new; the Academy has always been predominantly if not fully comprised of older white men, and there is substantive evidence suggesting that white cast and crew members win a majority of the eligible awards.

Besides race, sex is also a clear indicator for the Academy. Most women who direct or work on the crew of a film will not be nominated, and those who are usually do not win; of the five women who have EVER been nominated for “Best Director,” only ONE of them has won - Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker. The same issue applies to the issue of age—most winners are of older generations, with long histories in the film industry. These biases cannot be completely blamed on the Academy, because the truth is that the film industry is incredibly patriarchal and exclusive in general, so the options for nominees are skewed heavily towards older white men. However, it does play a role in the decision-making process, and can indicate that categories like “Best Director” will more often than not overlook anyone who isn’t middle-aged, white, and male.

Step 2 - Oscar Bait

When considering the Academy, we have to talk about their film preferences. Historically, there are fairly obvious trends as to what the Academy likes in a movie. There’s even a term for favoured films: “Oscar bait,” which is often applied to films that seem produced solely to please the Academy. Oscar bait films are often period pieces involving tragic events, (think 12 Years A Slave, Schindler’s List, and Hacksaw Ridge) or just historical dramas in general, (like the 2016 “Best Picture” winner, Spotlight, or the 2010 winner, The King’s Speech) and these films also do well in Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling. Another common Oscar bait trait is patriotism; the Academy loves a good all-American film, and so does America. Examples of this include American Sniper, Argo, The Hurt Locker, and Forrest Gump. Bonus points awarded if the film is about a war, or filmed in Britain.

The Academy also loves a racial commentary; films like Fences, Django Unchained, Slumdog Millionaire, and of course last year’s winner, Moonlight. Some argue that this is part of the white guilt phenom, but more likely it’s about enhancing the reputation of the Academy as being diverse and tolerant. The same goes for films about disability, such as The Theory of Everything, Silver Linings Playbook, and this year’s most-nominated film, The Shape of Water.

Oscar winners also share common ground that involves inspirational tales of underdogs, depressing dramas, or any film that could be described as “serious.” Lighthearted films, even when attached to big name directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, will often miss out on the bigger awards in favour of winless nominations in the lesser-known categories.

Step 3 - Logistical Trends

There are a few other elements to Academy trends that are a little more obscure. Firstly, the timing of the film releases has a significant impact on the voting. Oftentimes, the more recently released films (released in, say, December, instead of March) will be favoured more, simply by being the most recently watched. Furthermore, an established history of achievements contributes significantly to the likelihood of a win for actors, writers, and directors. People like Katharine Hepburn, Tom Hanks, and Jack Nicholson have been good bets for wins due to their extensive histories of nominations and wins, and it’s safe to say nominees this year like Daniel Day Lewis and Guillermo Del Toro could follow suit.

Films distributed by big name studios, such as Miramax, Universal, and Warner Bros, often do the best in contrast with smaller name studios or independent films. Although this might seem like an obvious one, few people actually note which studios produce which films, so it could give you an edge over the competition. Also of note is a strange trend regarding the “Best Actor” category, in which the winner is almost always over the age of fifty. This rule does not apply to “Best Actress,” and is not without exceptions, but if you’re going to place a bet, my advice is to pick older than younger.

In terms of the logistics of the films themselves, there are two key factors to consider: title and run time. Essentially, the shorter your title and the longer your run time, the higher your chances of winning. The run time makes some sense, as the Academy prefers emotionally-draining, drama-filled narratives which are hard to fit in less than two hours. The title trend is not as easily reasoned out, but it still stands that sixty-six of the eighty-nine “Best Picture” winners have had three words or less in their title. I wouldn’t rely on this one for your final decision, but it’s definitely a factor worth considering! We’ll have to see if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri throws that trend out of whack in March.

Step 4 - Keep An Eye on the Guilds

When looking for concrete evidence to fuel Oscars predictions, the best place to go is the winners list of other awards. Sites like fivethirtyeight are great for this, as they use an algorithm based on past wins to give each nominee a score, and provide quantitative projections every year. However, if you, like myself, consider this too much of a shortcut, you can also consult the other awards and come to your own conclusions.

There are many awards that can be factored into your prediction process, so it’s important to try to narrow down which awards are useful predictors. This counts the BAFTAs, which are good for contextualizing the “Best Picture” race, and the Golden Globes, who quite often accurately predict the “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” categories. However, a lesser known information sink that proves super beneficial to predictions is the various Guild awards. This includes the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Producers Guild of America (PGA), Writers Guild of America (WGA), and Directors Guild of America (DGA). The Guilds are key pieces to the prediction game because they’re comprised of actual filmmakers, many of whom are also in the Academy, as opposed to the non-Academy journalists and critics who award the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. The SAG awards in particular provide a good forecast, particularly in the “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” categories, because the largest number of Academy members in the largest Academy branch (the “actors” branch) are also members of SAG. While none of the Guilds produce identical winners to the Oscars, the SAG awards are the ones to watch if you want to bet close.

While I won’t reveal my predictions for this year’s Oscars race, I can reveal that this article essentially encapsulates my prediction strategies, barring choices I make from the heart. Sometimes those are okay too though! However you make your predictions this year, remember that what matters the most is that we don’t have another Moonlight/La La Land disaster. Just kidding, remember to have fun! Happy predicting!

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