Predicting the 2018 Best Picture winner

Written by:
January 26, 2018

Anatomy of an Oscar Winner: Predicting Best Picture Winner Using Historical Data

After many decades of glamorous Academy Awards ceremonies, one would assume that at this point, few of the night's events should come as a surprise. This isn't to say that there aren't a few snubs or eyebrow raises here or there — a critical darling loses to the fan favorite, or a host delivers a joke that elicits more cringes than chuckles.

But during last year's 89th Academy Awards, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong winner for Best Picture — a mistake that caused the cast and crew of La La Land to scramble in confused sadness on stage, the team from winner Moonlight to recover from shock, and all those millions of viewers at home to pick their jaws off of the floor.

It's never easy to predict the outcome of the Oscars, but using a bit of data analysis, we can come quite close. Stacker considered the 89 Oscar best picture winners from 1927 to today and drew out some key patterns and insights. Based on each theme, they determined which of the nine best picture nominees would be likely to take the crown. Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino), Darkest Hour (dir. Joe Wright), Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan), Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele), Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig), Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg), The Shape Of Water (dir. Guillermo Del Toro) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh) are all strong contenders, so no matter what the outcome, the 90th Oscars this upcoming March is sure to be anything but boring.

1. The best picture winner has also won best director 57 times

Out of the 89 best picture winners to date, 57 (or about 64 percent) of those winners also snagged a concurrent best director win. The past two years have been exceptions, with Moonlight winning the top honor in 2017 and best director going to La La Land’s Damien Chazelle. The year before, Alejandro González Iñárritu won best director for The Revenant, but the film lost best picture to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. But more often than not, the two awards go hand in hand. By this measure, the films of the best director nominees Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, Greta Gerwig, Christopher Nolan, and Jordan Peele have the best chances of going home with a golden statue.

2. 30 of the 89 best picture winners were released in January or December, including 10 of the last 20

Many films want to either start the year off with a bang, or be one of the last films of the year to leave a lingering impression until March. Half of the last 20 best picture winners were released during January or December, making sure that voters would feel their impact months later. While many of the nominated movies just fell short of the first and last months (November seemed to be the most popular month for a U.S. release), The Post, Phantom Thread and The Shape of Water all opened in the U.S. during December.

3. 83 of 89 Best Picture Winners have been classified as dramas

This correlation is one of the strongest, and often hotly debated among moviegoers. A staggering 83 winning films out of 89 have been dramas — genre films, historically haven’t made the cut. There has been some overlap, as 25 movies have been romance, 18 biographical, 14 comedy, 13 crime, 13 history and 12 war. Only one fantasy film has ever won best picture, 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This year, as per tradition, most of the best picture nominees are dramas. However, Get Out, a horror film (despite having had the Golden Globes controversially classify it as comedy), and The Shape of Water, a fantasy film, have a slim chance to beat the odds.

4. 63 of 89 had male actors as the leading role, 10 had both men and women in the leading roles

During the past couple of years, the Academy has taken steps (albeit small) to recognize a more diverse crop of nominees. Campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite, coupled with a general heightened awareness and vocalization of social issues has led to more visibility for people of color, women, and non-binary actors. But even so, 63 of 89 best picture winners featured male protagonists. In the last 20 years, 15 have had male leads, and only two had both male and female leads. This means that nominees with mixed casts (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, The Post) have a slimmer chance of winning, while a film with a powerhouse female-led cast like Lady Bird isn’t likely to edge out the competition.

5. The last 89 best picture winners have had an average of nine total Oscar nominations

Over the years, 70 of 89 Best Picture winners ended up winning the most (or tied for most) Oscars in their respective year (i.e. Titanic with 11 total wins in 1997, Ben-Hur with 11 wins in 1959). However, in the last 5 years, only one picture that had the most Oscar wins also won the Best Picture (Birdman).

6. 13 out of 89 best picture-awarded films were the top box office earner for their release year

While this has only occurred once in the past 20 years, 13 best picture winners in Oscars history have been the highest-grossing films of the year. In 1997, the classic love story Titanic dominated both the box office and awards season, and still ranks as one of the top earners of all time (when adjusted for inflation). In 2017, however, Star Wars: The Last Jedi ranked highest in the box office — and let’s face it: going up against an installment of the Star Wars series is likely a losing battle. None of the best picture nominated films cracked the top 10, but of the contenders, Dunkirk earned the most, raking in over $188 million overall.

7. Directorial experience has become less of a factor

Overall, the average director of each best picture winner has had 25 director credits at the time of their win. However, in the last 20 years, the average years of experience has decreased to almost half that — 14 years. Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980) and James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment (1983) each garnered best picture wins, despite being each director’s debut. This should come as a relief to Greta Gerwig, whose picture Lady Bird marks her second credit, and even more so to Jordan Peele, makes his debut in directing for Get Out.

8. The Academy loves a true story

Films based in truth won 30.3 percent of the time from 1990-2017, including three of the last five winners: Spotlight, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave. This being the case, The Post, based on The Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers and Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic, would rise as top contenders. (Some of the other films, such as Dunkirk and Lady Bird are fictionalized stories loosely based on true events.)

9. The winner of the Golden Globes best picture is a good barometer

About 57 percent of the time, the winner of best picture at the Golden Globes goes on to win the same top honor at the Academy Awards. Last year, Moonlight took the Golden Globe for best picture, and eventually (after some scrambling) took home the gold at the Oscars a few months later. The most recent 2018 Golden Globes crowned Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri winner of best picture, so this film is likely the favorite to win, as well as the opponent to beat.

10. Up-and-coming production companies are starting to make waves

Before the age of streaming and relatively lower-budget filmmaking and promotion, you could count on a best picture winner coming from on of the “Big Six” major Hollywood studios. Today, these include 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures & Walt Disney Pictures. But new, smaller competitors have recently fought their way on to the playing field. Open Road Films and A24 took home the last two best picture statues for Spotlight and Moonlight, respectively. By this standard, A24’s Lady Bird, and Sony Pictures Classics-distributed Call Me By Your Name will beat their marquee-framed counterparts.

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