Golden Stats And The Oscars

8th March 2018

One of the things we love about maths and statistics is how they can be used to explore and predict almost anything. From medical models on cancer treatments to Christmas toy trends, marketing trends to sweetie flavours, you name it and in theory you can predict it. Of course, these models and predictions are by no means infallible – if that were the case there would be no stock market trading, no horse racing, no uncertainty - and the world just doesn’t work like that!

The world is filled with incalculable variables, wild cards, surprises and chaos. But looking in more detail at the numbers and the data gives us glimpses into truth and can point us in just the right direction. The more data we have, the more accuracy with which we can predict outcomes.

This has led to maths being heavily used in so many situations you wouldn’t necessarily expect such as social media, shopping, defence against terrorism and even sports and the movies!

One person who combines his love for and expertise in maths and data statistical analysis to some such diverse areas is Ben Zauzmer. Zauzmer is a relatively recent Harvard graduate with a degree in Applied Mathematics who currently works for the Los Angeles Dodgers as a sabermetrician. A sabermetrician is someone who applies maths and statistics to the game of Baseball in order to analyse the current performance and predict the future performance of players or teams. (We’re going to ignore how uncannily he looks like a younger David Milliband.)

However, for the last seven years he has also been working for The Hollywood Reporter magazine using his mathematical analytical skills to try and predict the results of the most important event of the year in Tinseltown – The Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars.

Known and watched throughout the world every year a panel of judges awards accolades such as Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and of course the most prized of all – Best Picture!

An awful lot of gambling is generated around the results of the Oscars with numerous critics and publications having their own predictions, many based on opinion or intuition.

But surely film is a subjective thing to quantify and predict – a film one critic can adore can be absolutely panned by another after all.

So Zauzmer had his work cut out for him.

By analysing the results and trends of other less famous awards shows, such as the Golden Globes, etc, which categories a film is nominated in, critic scores, and betting markets he compiles a complex mathematical model to predict the winners.

Here are his predictions with his most and second most likely by percentage picks for each category.

He predicted the results of 21 out of the 24 categories using these methods, only excluding Animated, Live Action and Documentary Short films as he did not feel he had sufficient data to make a confident prediction although he still offered suggestions and even got 'Dear Basketball' right for Best Animated Short!

He certainly felt confident in his predictions for Best Actress - Frances Mcdormand at 75% and Best Actor – Gary Oldman at 77.9%, Best Animated Feature - Coco at 85%, Best Supporting Actor – Sam Rockwell at 74.8% and Best Supporting Actress Alison Janney at 65.4%.

Out of those 21 Zauzmer accurately predicted a whopping 20 correctly! He even correctly predicted that Guillermo del Toro’s aquatic fantasy romance, ‘The Shape Of Water’ would win the big prize of Best Picture (oh, and he also predicted that del Toro would also win best Director at 58.1%.)

Zauzmer called the Best Picture category “the closest race in at least two decades” with his numbers showing little difference between his two top runners with The Shape of Water at 36.1% and his second place pick ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ at 31%.

“My confidence in these predictions varied greatly by category, and that was reflected in the final percentages,” he explained.  

“For Best Animated Feature 'Coco' had an 85% chance to win, so I felt very sure about that one. For Best Picture, on the other hand, ‘The Shape of Water’ held only a 5% lead over Three Billboards, so I was nervous right until they opened the envelope.”

Below is Zauzmer’s full explanation of his prediction for Best Picture he published for The Hollywood Reporter. He wrote detailed explanation for all of his predictions which make for truly fascinating reading that we highly recommend you check out herehere and here.

The only one he didn’t get correct was the Documentary catalogue – he predicted French ‘Faces Places’ would win at 50.7% or Abacus at 14% but was wrong on both counts as unlikely Netflix entry ‘Icarus’ took that one. The fact that he got one wrong almost highlights the sheer skill and impressive achievement of getting 20 out of 21 predictions right. Maybe he did that on purpose so they didn’t burn him as a witch or accuse him of having inside knowledge and cheating!

We must say, we are very impressed. People sometimes complain that the Oscars are too predictable leading to the rise of the term Oscar Bait which suggests some films are made deliberately to push all the right buttons with a view to winning a Oscar. But in reality, although some are clearly more likely to do well than others, you need to work those numbers extremely effectively to actually predict the winner in almost every category.

His Twitter account at @BensOscarMath and articles with The Hollywood reporter are also rich with fascinating Oscars trivia, historical statistics and more, which any number loving film fan will adore.

If we were a gambling company (which we are obviously, emphatically, not) we would be kicking ourselves now for not betting our pensions on this guys say-so.

We may have to watch the ceremony next year – with this guy’s Twitter feed streaming on our phones! Maths truly is awesome.

Here is the full list of winners of the Oscars 2018:

Best Picture: The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Actor: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Actress: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Original Screenplay: Get Out

Adapted Screenplay: Call Me by Your Name

Animated Feature: Coco

Visual Effects: Blade Runner 2049

Film Editing: Dunkirk

Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman

Animated Short: Dear Basketball

Live Action Short: The Silent Child

Documentary Short: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405

Score: The Shape of Water

Song: “Remember Me” from Coco

Production Design: The Shape of Water

Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049

Costume Design: Phantom Thread

Makeup and Hairstyling: Darkest Hour

Documentary Feature: Icarus

Sound Editing: Dunkirk

Sound Mixing: Dunkirk