Handicapping The Oscars

Can the outcome of the Oscars be predicted by looking at a statistical breakdown of certain factors relating to the major categories? How important is it to have the most nominations? Are films released before September really ignored? Can one win an Oscar, even though they appear in the lowest-grossing film nominated in that category? Looking at the ten major categories over the past 25 ceremonies (1978 to 2002) and found some surprising mathematical data, which may give some pause about who might win Sunday night.

Please note: These are not predictions on how the awards will turn out. As you will see, while there have been a number of statistical factors which lead to more than 80 percent chances to win a specific award, there is no 100 percent consensus. Outside of 100 percent of women having won for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (although one of the latter did win for playing a male character), and 100 percent of men having won for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director (shame on you, Academy members!), this is just one stat junkie’s way to help other stat junkies look for more ways to handicap their office Oscar pool. Updated at 6:00PM Thursday, to correct some incorrect data in the Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories.

Best Picture
The front-runner for the big prize is “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” with good reason. It was won the top prize from a wide variety of critic groups and guilds, as well as is the crowning achievement in the most celebrated film trilogy ever created. Statistically speaking, “King” is the overwhelming favorite to win here as well.

20 of the past 25 Best Picture winners (80 percent) have come from the film with the most nominations. 19 (76 percent) saw their director win the Director’s Guild of America award, and 19 former winners were not based in contemporary society. 16 (64 percent) were released after September 30, and 10 of the 14 winners (71 percent) of the Producers Guild Golden Laurel Award, established in 1990, have gone on to win Best Picture. Only one movie nominated this year has this royal flush. “The Return of the King.”

On the disadvantage side, not one nominee with the lowest gross in the past 25 years has won Best Picture, which is not good news for “Lost In Translation.” Only one of the past quarter century’s winners (1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy”) came from a film whose leader was not nominated for Best Director, which hurts “Seabiscuit.” Additionally, only one Best Picture in our focus group (1997’s “Titanic”) won without the benefit of a Best Screenplay nomination, which could be a black spot for “Master and Commander.” Two were able to win without a single acting nomination, which is more bad news for “Master and Commander,” “Return of the King” and “Seabiscuit.” Less severe are the numbers for films that did not receive the Golden Globe for Best Drama (8 of 25, or 32 percent, affecting all but “King”) or 11 were born from original screenplays (44 percent, which only affects “Lost In Translation”).

Final analysis: “Return of the King” is statistically the overwhelming favorite to win, with all the advantages and only one of the disadvantages.

Best Actor
For the most part, this category has been a two-man race between Bill Murray and Sean Penn, two exemplary performances in widely hailed films. On the positive side of the stats, 19 (76 percent) of the Best Actor winners usually comes from a Best Picture nominee, a plus for both Murray and Penn. 17 (68 percent) have won at least two major pre-awards, which is good for both actors again. However, 13 (52 percent) of the winners are first-time nominees for Best Actor. “Mystic River” is Penn’s fourth Best Actor nomination in the past nine years, while this is the first nomination of Murray’s career. (It should also be noted this is Johnny Depp’s first nomination.) And of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, established in 1994, 7 of 9 winners (78 percent) of the SAG Award have won here, which helps Depp, although Benecio Del Toro won in the SAG Lead Category for “Traffic,” while being nominated for, and winning, the Best Supporting Oscar.

Like Best Picture, not one Best Actor winner has come from the lowest grossing nominee, which is a strike against Ben Kingsley. Kingsley is also the only actor affected by two 12 percent stats: both the oldest Best Actor nominee and a previous Best Actor winner have only won three times in the past quarter-century. Ten actors (40 percent) were able to overcome their lack of winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama and parlaying it into Oscar gold, which was won this year by Sean Penn.

Final analysis: It’s an even race count-wise between Murray (3 pluses, one minus), Sean Penn and Johnny Depp (both with two pluses, no minuses), with a slight statistic edge going to Penn.

Best Actress
In our cynical world, one could point to the sheer number of actresses who have won or been nominated for Oscars for playing prostitutes and give the instant edge to It-girl of the moment Theron. But according to the stats, it might not be that easy.

21 (84 percent) of the Best Actress winners won on their first nomination in this category, which helps everyone but 1977 Best Actress winner Diane Keaton. But, on the other hand, 15 (60 percent) have had a previous acting nomination, which helps Keaton and Samantha Morton. 6 of the 9 SAG Awards winners (67 percent) went on to win the Oscar, good news for Theron.

On the flip side, only one Best Actress winner has come from the lowest grossing film, bad news for Morton. Three (12 percent) of the winners came from films which their nomination was the only one, a potential omen for Theron, Keaton and Keisha Castle-Hughes. And only four (16 percent) were previous Best Actress winners, which doesn’t help Keaton either.

Final analysis: With two pluses and one minuses, Charlize Theron has the slight statistical edge over Samantha Morton as favorite to win Best Actress, as Morton’s negative is more severe than Theron’s.

Best Supporting Actor
One of the strongest categories, by the numbers. 22 (88 percent) of the previous winners for Best Supporting Actor were first time winners, which helps Baldwin, Hounsou, Robbins and Watanabe. 20 (80 percent) won for playing fictional characters, for which all five roles qualify. 16 (64 percent) came from films which did not have a nominee for Best Actor, helping all but Robbins. On the other hand, only three winners (12 percent) were the youngest of the nominees, which hurts Hounsou. Six (24 percent) appeared in the lowest grossing film, and seven (28 percent) were the oldest nominee in the pack, both knocks against Baldwin.

Final analysis: With three pluses and no minuses, Ken Watanabe is the statistical favorite to win Best Supporting Actor.

Best Supporting Actress
21 (84 percent) of former winners are first-time Supporting Actress nominees, which is good for Shohreh Aghdashloo, Patricia Clarkson and Renee Zellweger. 17 (68 percent) are from films without a nomination for Best Actress, a plus for all five nominees. 16 (64 percent) were featured in films nominated for Best Picture, good only for Marcia Gay Harden. Only one of the winners came from the lowest-grossing nominated film, a bad sign for Holly Hunter. Three (12 percent) former winners were the youngest nominee of their group, and seven (28 percent) appeared in the highest grossing film, both only affecting Zellweger.

Final analysis: Aghdashloo and Clarkson are statistically tied as the favorite to win.

Best Director
21 (84 percent) Best Director winners also won the DGA Award the same year, and 17 (68 percent) directed the films with the most nominations that year, both good for Peter Jackson. 18 (72 percent) directed films which were not based in modern-day, helping Jackson, Fernando Meirelles and Peter Weir. 17 former winners were first time nominees, a bonus for Sofia Coppola and Meirelles. Meirelles, however, is hurt by being the only nominee not also nominated for the DGA Award and not having directed a Best Picture nominee, both being categories which are zero for 25. Only two winners (8 percent) were the oldest nominee, bad for Eastwood, and two winners also came from films without a single acting nomination, a black spot for Jackson, Meirelles and Weir. 8 (32 percent) won for directing films released before September 30, which does not help Coppola and Meirelles.

Final analysis: Peter Jackson (three pluses, one minus) is the statistical front-runner.

Best Cinematography
Stories set in the past accounted for 23 (92 percent) of the winners in this category, which is a good thing for all five nominees. 20 (80 percent) featured many scenes with large crowd scenes, such as the party scenes from “City of God,” the Civil War scenes in “Cold Mountain” and racing scenes from “Seabiscuit.” 19 (76 percent) winners shot Best Picture nominees, a plus for Russell Boyd for “Master and Commander” and John Schwartzman for “Seabiscuit.” And 17 (68 percent) also saw nominations in the Best Art Direction category, a bonus for “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” “Master and Commander” and “Seabiscuit.” On the negative side, only once in the 17 years of the American Society of Cinematographer Awards has someone won an Oscar despite a lack an ASC nomination, which this year hurts “City of God” and “Girl With A Pearl Earring.” Two (8 percent) came from the lowest-grossing title, another knock on “City of God.” Five (20 percent) winners shot films for un-nominated directors, not good for “Cold Mountain” or “Girl With A Pearl Earring.” And 10 (40 percent) were first time nominees, of which only John Seale is a previously nominated cinematographer.

Final analysis: With all four pluses and only one minus, John Schwartzman, the half-brother of actor and musician Jason Schwartzman, is the statistical best chance to go home with a statue.

Best Original Screenplay
21 (84 percent) former first-placers had nominated directors, and 20 (80 percent) for films also nominated for Best Picture, of which “Lost In Translation” is the only qualifier. 18 (72 percent) of films were based in the United States, which helps the properly titled “In America.” 18 winners also took place in today’s world, a boon for all five nominees. On the flip side, only one winner came from a film without an acting nomination, bad for “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Barbarian Invasions.” Three (12 percent) were the lowest-grossing nominee, another hit against “The Barbarian Invasions.” 7 (28 percent) were primarily comedies, bad for “Finding Nemo” and “Lost In Translation.” Another 7 were awarded to films with more than one writer, hurting “Finding Nemo” and “In America.”

Final analysis: Sofia Coppola is the statistical favorite to win.

Best Adapted Screenplay
23 (92 percent) of winners were for films nominated for Best Picture, a plus for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Mystic Riover” and “Seabiscuit.” 17 (68 percent) were for non-current stories, a plus for all but “Mystic River.” Another 17 were films with nominated directors, which helps all but “American Splendor.” On the downside, only one former winner came without a single acting nomination, which hurts all but “Mystic River.” A film without a Best Picture nominee has only won twice, not a good sign for “American Splendor” or “City of God.” Three times (12 percent) has the lowest-grosssing film won, a third strike for “American Splendor,” which might get a four for four knockout punch for having more than one credited writer, which only three Adapted Screenplay winners share. This also hurts the “Lord of the Rings” writing team.

Final analysis: Statistically speaking, as two positives and zero negatives beats three positives and two negatives, giving “Mystic River” the edge in this category.

Best Foreign Language Film
Most films nominated for the this award do not open in the US until after the ceremony, which isn’t wise according to the stats. 19 of 25 winners in this category (76 percent) are films that opened before the final Oscar ballots were sent out, helping only Canada’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” which opened in late November in New York and Los Angeles. However, 16 (64 percent) of the winners were not modern-day stories, which helps the other four films. Being a comedy is not the way to win this award, accounting for only four (16 percent) wins, hurting the Canadian entry. Films not submitted by Western European nations are 6 for 25 (24 percent), putting an extra chill on the films from Canada, the Czech Republic and Japan. Eight (32 percent) winners had the longest running time, another black mark on the Czech “Zelary.”

Final analysis: With one plus and no minuses, the statistical race is even between the Swedish entry “Ondskan” (which played at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival under the title “Evil), and the Dutch nominee “De Tweeling” (“Twin Sisters”).

Best Animated Film
Okay, the category has only been a part of the past two ceremonies, so there is only one stat the two previous winners share: both “Shrek” and “Spirited Away” won several major awards from major critics and guild groups. This year, both “Finding Nemo” and “The Triplets of Belleville” have split the lion’s share of awards, so this one is a toss-up.

We’ll be back on Saturday with our personal predictions.

Special thanks to AC Neilsen/EDI, whose 2002 and 2003 Academy Award Guides assisted greatly with the accruing of data.