How to Predict the Oscar Winners: 2011 Edition

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  • Publish Date: February 15, 2011

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Around this time last year, we took an in-depth look at whether or not it was possible to predict the Oscar best picture winner based on a variety of different factors. Now, with the Academy Awards once again approaching, we re-visit the idea of predicting the best picture race, and also look at the front-runners for several other key categories.

Best picture

Below, we take a look at 27 different performance, quality, and award factors to see how well they can be used to predict the eventual best picture Oscar winner, based on results from the past decade. (The "% correct" column shows how often that a film meeting the stated criteria wins the best picture Oscar.) It turns out there is only one sure-fire way to eliminate a best picture nominee from consideration: If it didn't also get nominated for best director, best screenplay, and best film editing, the movie will not win best picture.

As you can see, the various guild awards are relatively decent predictors of the best picture winner, while taking top honors from film critic groups in Los Angeles, Toronto, and London almost always guarantees that the best picture Oscar will go to a different film. While The Social Network is the recipient of more honors than any other best picture nominee this year, it is The King's Speech that received the bulk of the significant industry awards -- at least as far as predicting the Oscars is concerned -- which gives the latter film the status of favorite heading into the Academy Awards ceremony later this month. Being a favorite of critics is more burden than benefit to would-be Oscar best picture winners.

Favorite: The King's Speech
Possible: The Social Network
Dark horse: The Fighter

Predictors for Best Picture Oscar
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Years This Year's Pick
Also nominated for best director Oscar 100% Bar Films meeting all 3 criteria:
The Fighter, The King's Speech,
The Social Network
Also nominated for ether screenplay Oscar 100% Bar
Also nominated for film editing Oscar 100% Bar
Film's director won DGA Award 80% Bar The King's Speech
BFCA Critics Choice Award Best Picture 80% Bar The Social Network
Film's producer(s) won PGA Award 60% Bar The King's Speech
Film's screenplay won WGA Award 60% Bar The Social Network / Inception
Vegas odds favorite Past 7 years only 57% Bar The King's Speech
Most total nominations among best pic nominees 50% Bar The King's Speech
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Picture 50% Bar The Social Network
Film grossed at least $100 million * 50% Bar Toy Story 3, Inception, True Grit **
SAG Award for Best Cast 50% Bar The King's Speech
BAFTA Best Picture 40% Bar The King's Speech
Golden Globe Winner (Best Picture - Drama) 40% Bar The Social Network
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Picture 40% Bar The Social Network
Best-reviewed nominee (highest Metascore) 30% Bar The Social Network
Highest-grossing nominee * 30% Bar Toy Story 3
Film with most acting nominations 30% Bar The King's Speech / The Fighter
New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture 30% Bar The Social Network
Online Film Critics Society Best Picture 30% Bar The Social Network
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Picture 30% Bar The Social Network
Film is on most critic top 10 lists 20% Bar The Social Network
National Board of Review Best Picture 20% Bar The Social Network
National Society of Film Critics Best Picture 20% Bar The Social Network
London Critics’ Circle Best Picture 10% Bar The Social Network
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Picture 10% Bar The Social Network
Toronto Film Critics Association Best Picture 10% Bar The Social Network

* Based on domestic box office grosses just prior to each year's Academy Awards ceremony.
** Through February 14, 2011; Black Swan and The King's Speech also have a chance of reaching $100 million by the time of this year's Academy Awards ceremony on February 27.

Best director

The Directors Guild's pick for top feature film director is widely considered to be the front-runner to win the directing Oscar, for the simple reason that it is largely the same group of people voting for the two awards. Indeed, the DGA Award has been an accurate predictor of the Oscar race eight times in the past decade, including seven consecutive years. That reason alone gives Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) a strong shot at taking home the Academy Award, though The Social Network's David Fincher is certainly not out of the race. A few other predictors are listed below, though for this and the remaining Oscar categories, we have omitted the predictors in the 40-50% accuracy range, since they have little actual predictive value.

Favorite: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Possible: David Fincher, The Social Network
Dark horse: (none)

Most/Least Accurate Predictors for Best Director Oscar
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Years This Year's Pick
First-time winner 90% Bar any except Coen brothers
DGA Award winner 80% Bar Tom Hooper
BFCA (Critics Choice Award) Best Director 80% Bar David Fincher
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Director 70% Bar David Fincher
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Director 70% Bar David Fincher
Director's film also won WGA Award 70% Bar David Fincher
Highest-grossing film among director nominees 30% Bar Coen brothers
Director had best-reviewed film (highest Metascore) 30% Bar David Fincher
National Board of Review Best Director 30% Bar David Fincher
National Society of Film Critics Best Director 30% Bar David Fincher

Lead actor

While The King's Speech has all of the momentum heading into the Academy Awards ceremony, so does the film's star, Colin Firth. As the winner of most of the honors for lead actor handed out over the past few months -- including the SAG Award, which has mirrored the Oscar pick for six consecutive years, making it an even stronger predictor than it appears below -- Firth looks likely to add an Oscar trophy to his collection.

More good news for Firth: Over the past decade, when at least four of the five major critic organizations (LA, NY and Chicago critics, plus the National Society of Film Critics and the Broadcast Film Critics Association) have agreed on the year's best lead actor -- as they have this year with Firth -- that person has gone on to win the Oscar four out of five times. (The one exception is Bill Murray, who failed to win for Lost in Translation.)

Favorite: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Possible: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Dark horse: Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Most/Least Accurate Predictors for Actor in a Leading Role Oscar
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Years This Year's Pick
Winner's film was also best picture nominee 70% Bar Everyone except Javier Bardem
Film's director was also nominated for Oscar 70% Bar Bridges, Eisenberg, Firth
BFCA (Critics Choice Award) Best Actor 70% Bar Colin Firth
Other actors were nominated from same film 60% Bar Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Actor 60% Bar Jesse Eisenberg
Golden Globe Winner Best Actor (either one) 60% Bar Colin Firth
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Actor 60% Bar Colin Firth
SAG Award winner 60%** Bar Colin Firth
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Actor 30% Bar Colin Firth
New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor 30% Bar Colin Firth
Online Film Critics Society Best Actor 30% Bar Colin Firth
Toronto Film Critics Association Best Actor 10% Bar Jesse Eisenberg
Highest-grossing film among actor nominees * 0%   Jeff Bridges

* Based on domestic box office grosses at the time of each year's Academy Awards ceremony.
** The winner of the SAG Award has also won the Oscar in each of the past six years.

Lead actress

In just one year over the past decade -- 2006, when Helen Mirren was the runaway consensus pick and eventual Oscar winner -- the major critic organizations and award bodies agreed on a winner; in every other year, the picks for best actress were all over the map, making the contest tougher to predict. This year, however, is shaping up to be 2006 all over again, with Natalie Portman sweeping nearly every honor handed out so far.

Favorite: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Possible: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Dark horse: Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone

Most/Least Accurate Predictors for Actress in a Leading Role Oscar
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Years This Year's Pick
Golden Globe Winner Best Actress (either one) 90% Bar Bening, Portman
Winner portrayed a real-life person 70% Bar none
SAG Award winner 70% Bar Natalie Portman
Winner's film was also best picture nominee 60% Bar Bening, Lawrence, Portman
BAFTA Best Actress 60% Bar Natalie Portman
BFCA (Critics Choice Award) 60% Bar Natalie Portman
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Actress 30% Bar none *
National Board of Review Best Actress 30% Bar none *
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Actress 20% Bar Natalie Portman
New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress 20% Bar Annette Bening
Online Film Critics Society Best Actress 20% Bar Natalie Portman
Best-reviewed (highest Metascore) 10% Bar Jennifer Lawrence
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Actress 10% Bar Natalie Portman
Toronto Film Critics Association Best Actress 10% Bar Jennifer Lawrence

* Winner of award was not nominated for the Oscar.

Supporting actor

The supporting actor category is not quite as close as it appears in the table below; Christian Bale is a clear favorite, thanks to winning most of the awards handed out so far, including key victories at the Golden Globe and SAG Awards. Though the latter isn't a reliable predictor -- the SAG winner matches the Oscar winner just 50% of the time over the past decade, the Golden Globes have been surprisingly accurate over the last ten years, failing to agree with the Academy just twice. A BAFTA victory does give Geoffrey Rush a bit of momentum heading into the home stretch -- as does the buzz surrounding his movie, The King's Speech -- but Bale remains the actor to beat.

Favorite: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Possible: Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
Dark horse: John Hawkes, Winter's Bone

Most/Least Accurate Predictors for Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Years This Year's Pick
Golden Globe Winner Best Supp. Actor 80% Bar Christian Bale
Winner's film was also best picture nominee 60% Bar All except Renner
Won as first-time acting nominee 60% Bar Bale, Hawkes, Ruffalo
BAFTA Best Supp. Actor 60% Bar Geoffrey Rush
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Supp. Actor 60% Bar Geoffrey Rush
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Supp. Actor 30% Bar Christian Bale
New York Film Critics Circle Best Supp. Actor 30% Bar Mark Ruffalo
Online Film Critics Society Best Supp. Actor 30% Bar Christian Bale
Highest-grossing film among supp. actor nominees * 20% Bar Geoffrey Rush
National Board of Review Best Supp. Actor 20% Bar Christian Bale
National Society of Film Critics Best Supp. Actor 20% Bar Geoffrey Rush

* Based on domestic box office grosses at the time of each year's Academy Awards ceremony.

Supporting actress

The final acting category is perhaps the toughest to predict this year. The presumed favorite Melissa Leo, one of two actresses nominated for The Fighter, has had a successful awards season so far (including a SAG win), but only slightly more so than 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit. And, over the past decade, the Academy has shown a strong preference for first-time nominees like Steinfeld in this category, with rookies taking home the trophy in seven of the past 10 years. (Steinfeld's age also isn't a negative; two even younger actresses have won this award in the past.) And though the BAFTA Film Awards are a surprisingly accurate predictor in this category, they also tend to show a preference for British films and actors, which means that Carter's win there, while a momentum-builder, isn't a guarantee of Oscar success.

One negative for Steinfeld is being singled out by the Toronto critics; that group has a perfect record over the past decade of never agreeing with the Academy in this category. Similarly, her victory with the Chicago critics could be construed as a bad omen.

Favorite: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Possible: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Dark horse: Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech

Most/Least Accurate Predictors for Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Years This Year's Pick
Other actors were nominated from same film 80% Bar All except Weaver
BAFTA Best Supp. Actress 80% Bar Helena Bonham Carter
Won as first-time acting nominee 70% Bar Steinfeld, Weaver
SAG Award winner 60% Bar Melissa Leo
New York Film Critics Circle Best Supp. Actress 30% Bar Melissa Leo
Online Film Critics Society Best Supp. Actress 30% Bar Hailee Steinfeld
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Supp. Actress 20% Bar none *
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Supp. Actress 20% Bar Jacki Weaver
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supp. Actress 10% Bar Hailee Steinfeld
National Board of Review Best Supp. Actress 10% Bar Jacki Weaver
National Society of Film Critics Best Supp. Actress 10% Bar none *
Toronto Film Critics Association Best Supp. Actress 0%   Hailee Steinfeld

* Winner of award was not nominated for the Oscar.

Screenplay (adapted and original)

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network so dominated the awards circuit this year that it is hard to make any prediction other than that Sorkin will win in the adapted screenplay category. Since many organizations only hand out one screenplay award rather than two, as the Oscars do -- and because The Social Network collected all those awards -- predicting the original screenplay category becomes a little tougher. David Seidler's script for The King's Speech and Inception writer-director Christopher Nolan wound up splitting most of the original screenplay honors this year, but since Seidler's victories came in several of the better predictive categories (below), look for him to triumph, especially with all the support behind his film. That said, there's always the chance that Academy voters will want to reward Nolan for one of the year's more successful and original films, and this is the one non-technical category where they can do so. (Plus, the WGA victory certainly doesn't hurt Nolan's chances.)

Favorite: The Social Network (adapted); The King's Speech (original)
Possible: Inception (original)
Dark horse: The Kids Are All Right (original)

Most/Least Accurate Predictors for Best Screenplay Oscars
Predictor % Correct, Past 10 Yrs This Year's Pick(s)
First-time winner 95% Bar Adapted: Social Network, Winter's Bone
Original: Any
WGA Award winner 75% Bar Adapted: Social Network
Original: Inception
Golden Globe Best Screenplay 70% Bar Adapted: Social Network
Original: n/a
SE Film Critics Assoc. Best Screenplay 65% Bar Adapted: Social Network
Original: King's Speech
BFCA (Critics Choice Award) 60% Bar Adapted: Social Network
Original: King's Speech
BAFTA Best Screenplay 60% Bar Adapted: Social Network
Original: King's Speech
New York Film Critics Circle Best Screenplay 30% Bar Adapted: n/a
Original: The Kids Are All Right
Nat. Society of Film Critics Best Screenplay 30% Bar Adapted:Social Network
Original: n/a
Toronto Film Critics Assoc. Best Screenplay 30% Bar Adapted:Social Network
Original: n/a
National Board of Review Best Screenplay 29% Bar Adapted:Social Network
Original: n/a
L.A. Film Critics Assoc. Best Screenplay 10% Bar Adapted:Social Network
Original: n/a

Coming soon

Next week, we'll tabulate the predictions of numerous Oscar experts in each of the 24 categories, and take a look back at some of the most- and least-deserving best picture winners of the past few decades. In the meantime, you can give us your own Oscar predictions in our 2011 Academy Awards Poll.

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Comments (15)

  • petersellers  

    @Mitch
    You think that Christian Bale overacted??
    I don't agree.I think that he should have been nominated for best actor award.I didn't like Colin Firth's performance and that from Geoffrey Rush even less.I think that they were overacting and not Christian Bale and Melissa Leo..
    I also think that the movie of the year should be Black Swan and that Darren Aronofsky should win a best director award.It was far the best movie of the year.I just want to say that thi wasn't good year for movies.At least that's my opinion

  • Josh  

    It would break my heart to see the middle-of-the-road, sports movie-esque The King's Speech take Best Picture over the brilliant and (*gasp*) relevant The Social Network. But even more, it would kill me to see Tom Hooper, a man who so abused the rule of thirds that I thought I was watching a student film, take Best Director away from David Fincher. But as I look at the stats, isn't Fincher and not Hooper the favorite?

    (This will all be moot if Metacritic weights the DGA award higher than the BFCA award.)

    But the only award I see that Hooper has over Fincher is the DGA award, which, at 80% prediction success, should be canceled out by Fincher's win at the BFCA, right? And if those two are a wash between them, then Fincher is the favorite for winning nearly every other award under the sun. I still have hope that Fincher (and his brilliant Social Network) will win, despite some number-crunching.

  • Ptero  

    I will be seriously pissed off if The King's Speech gets Best Picture. It was good, but nowhere near Best Picture standards. The problem is is that it panders to Oscar critics so much. Like O-Critic said, it's not going to be remembered in ten years, while movies like The Social Network will.

  • Julie  

    I'm hoping for Winter's Bone - Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes they were both amazing.

  • O-Critic  

    The King's Speech is going to be one of those films that people will forget in the next ten years. It's too sentimental, and the moral of the story has been used entirely. Ever seen The Blind Side?

  • O-Critic  

    I just want David Fincher to win Best Director. Tom Hooper had an ensemble of well-known actors, but David Fincher took young actors (mostly unknown) and turned them into their characters. Not only that, The Social Network IS the highest reviewed film of 2010. You'd think that alone should give it to him. The Director's Guild of America Awards, I think, focused more on the picture and less on the actual director.

  • Thomas  

    I think The Social Network will win most of the awards. I didn't really like The King's Speech. It was ok.

  • barder2626  

    @Rowanrho: Did you see the Social Network, or are you just making unfair assumptions because you think that its popularity is due to the Facebook craze. There are many people I know who shy away from it with the exact same attitude you have only to rave about it after seeing it. The Social Network was an interesting and well made movie whether you are a fan of Facebook or not. Id say that the fact that Facebook being such a buzz word would only hinder it, making the film that much more impressive.

  • Mike McCracken  

    @Rowanrho: You think the reason The Social Network did so well with American critics is nationalism? Wow... Now I've heard it all.

  • Rowanrho  

    Well... by having a quite visit I can say what i supposed the people in general to be thinking about OSCAR-winners. if Social Network wins, I think it's a matter of nationalism, because of the creator of FACEBOOk biography... i know, most of the people in the whole world prefer to win that movie because of the influence ''social networks'' have in their lives, but... please, think it wisely. I really think the movie of the year is INCEPTION (original idea, good effects, good story-telling, nice soundtrack, well-performed characters... so on, it's the one that's different), the best actor should be Colin Firth, his performance was gorgeous, whether you like it or not. Intead, and in any case, the secord could be Jeff Bridges for True Grit (in fact I watched True Grit by first and said ''Jeff, you deserve the oscar''... then I watched King's Speech...). We have this nationalism problem more obviously shown in The Hurtlocker by Kathleen Bigelow. Does it make any sense to you, this movie the best movie of the year? best director? I can say ''ok there was no good movies last year after all, so they put it all in their own history, that acceptable at some point''... but now? There's a lot to check and watch... why Social Network should be the motion picture of the year? because of facebook? Please, don't take this as an insult, but there's much more than ''social networks'' and I think we're forgetting this.

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