The Oscars: How to Predict the Best Picture Winner

  • Comments: ↓ 25 user comments
  • Publish Date: February 4, 2010

Why it will be Avatar (or The Hurt Locker)

ImageShould Hurt Locker be aiming high?

While we will wait until closer to the actual Academy Award ceremony (March 7th) to tally the experts' predictions for this year's winners, it's hard to avoid the current buzz around The Hurt Locker and Avatar, the two films which tied for the lead in this year's Oscar nominations. Conventional wisdom seems to indicate that one of those two films will be this year's best picture winner, with Avatar having a slight edge. And it's not just conventional wisdom; Las Vegas oddsmakers have also established James Cameron's blockbuster as the favorite to win.

Is there a better way to predict the best picture winner other than trying to gauge the "buzz" for each film? That's exactly what we'll attempt to determine in this article. We're not concerned here with which movies should win; what we're trying to determine is which films will win (or, more accurately, which films are likelier to win).

We start with something near and dear to Metacritic: Metascores, which indicate the overall critical consensus for each movie. Do the better-reviewed films have an advantage over films receiving lesser reviews?

What do critic reviews tell us?

The question here really is: Do film critic opinions coincide with those of Academy voters? Let's compare the Metascores of this year's films, and see if previous years indicate any correlation between reviews and winners.

2010 Best Picture Nominees
Nominees Ranked by Score Metascore   Nominees Ranked by Score Metascore
1 The Hurt Locker 94   6 District 9 81
2 Up 88   7 Precious 79
3 An Education 85     A Serious Man 79
4 Avatar 84   9 Inglourious Basterds 69
5 Up in the Air 83   10 The Blind Side 53

The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good).

Recent Best Picture Winners
Year Winner Metascore Nominee Rank* Scores of All Nominees
2009 Slumdog Millionaire 86 1st 86 84 80 70 58
2008 No Country for Old Men 91 2nd 92 91 85 82 81
2007 The Departed 86 3rd 91 89 86 80 69
2006 Crash 69 5th 87 88 80 74 69
2005 Million Dollar Baby 86 2nd 94 86 77 73 67
2004 Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 94 1st 94 89 84 81 72
2003 Chicago 82 3rd 88 85 82 81 72
2002 A Beautiful Mind 72 4th 92 90 86 72 66
2001 Gladiator 64 4th (tie) 93 86 73 64 64
2000 American Beauty 86 1st 86 84 75 64 61

* Rankings are among the five best picture nominees that year. Note that the years listed indicate the year the awards were handed out; films were released the previous year.

Is there a correlation between critic reviews and best picture winners? It certainly doesn't look that way. Over the past decade, half of the winners have been either the best-reviewed or the second-best-reviewed of the five nominees; but the Academy has also been willing to choose films that were not among the critics' favorites. That being said, the best picture winner does tend to be a well-reviewed film, even if it isn't the best-reviewed. (Sorry, Blind Side.) Here are some additional stats:

Stats from the Past Decade
Stat Number
Average Score Rank (Among Nominees) of Winner 2.6
Average (Mean) Metascore of Winner 81.6
Highest Metascore of Winner 94
Median Metascore of Winner 86
Lowest Metascore of WInner 64
Highest Metascore Not to Win 94
Years with Films Scoring 90 or Higher Where Winner's Score Was Below 90 4 of 6 (67%)
% of Winners Scoring Below 80 30%
% of Time the Best-Reviewed Movie Won 30%

What does this tell us about the chances for this year's nominees? For one thing, it looks like we can probably knock out the films ranked 6-10 above, as the Academy has picked films scoring below an 80 just 30% of the time -- and that was when there were fewer well-reviewed films to choose from. (Sure, District 9 has an 81, but let's face it: the odds of the Academy selecting another science fiction film over Avatar are approximately nil.)

On the other hand, The Hurt Locker's Metascore of 94, while impressive (and six points higher than the runner-up), is absolutely no guarantee of a win. In four of the past 10 years, the Academy has overlooked a film scoring 90 or higher to select a film that received lesser reviews. Among the very high-scoring films that didn't win best picture were Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 93 (losing to Gladiator, a film scoring 29 points lower!), LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring 92, Sideways 94, and The Queen 91.

So the nominees' Metascores are only (at best) slightly helpful in forecasting the best picture winner. Perhaps our users, rather than critics, serve as a good stand-in for Academy voters. Let's see if that's true...

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Comments (25)

  • Boozlebaum  

    It is still dumbfounding that Crash won best picture. What crack was the academy communally smoking that year?

  • Dee  

    What a complete shambles!! I know James Cameron isn't the most liked person in the industry and that Avatar cost sooooo much, but good god it certainly deserved to win Best Picture. These awards should be left entirely for the public to decide, via online and telephone votes, as well as results of global ticket sales. I appreciate everyone has their own personal taste in films and that some will and won't agree with the 2010 results, but there's no doubt that with the impact Avatar had on the viewing public and how greatly accepted it was - it would have won hands down if it was a public vote worldwide, instead of being left for an `old skool` academy to decide. Will we ever know the complete 100% truth why The Hurt Locker cleaned-up that night, particulary for the major awards (Best Picture & Best Director), I doubt it, although as David also suggested above, probably that it was female director and current event.

  • Joshua  

    David Johnson are you serious? Of course avatar is a green-loving fairy tale it is telling us that we need to fix the earth because we are killing it slowly and as for anti- America...where did you get that from? Some a-hole who's blog you read? Avatar is not anti-America it is anti-destroy the earth so we can live on it for another couple thousand years or so. Avatar didn't win because the director of the hurt locker is a woman and it is about a current event that's it, that's the only reasons it won period.

  • Yan  

    District 9 is underrated

  • Dee  

    Ps. I also agree with Mikey's and Mark Hansson's comments above.
    Also, as others have stated, what a great informative site. Such a clear detailed breakdown so well structured, a brilliant job!!!
    Now saved as one of my `favorites`! Cheers!!!!!

  • Dee  

    "And the award for Best Picture goes to............James Cameron for Avatar"! It's gotta be `in the bag` for Avatar. Totally mind blowing effects and has opened up a whole new era for future film making. I've been to the cinema twice to see it (with my family) and each time it actually got a standing ovation from the viewing public - in a packed house.

    Such box office revenue gives a crystal clear indication of the impact it's had, and continues to have on the public, with many eagerly awaiting Avatar's release on to Blu-Ray & DVD just to watch it again and again.

    I did watch the Hurt Locker and enjoyed it, although couldn't watch it again. Avatar however, I could watch over and over, including others I have talked to about the film.

    The Academy shouldn't `play it safe` and just opt for the previous awards pattern from other awards (Critics, Baftas etc). It should maintain its own completely independant view and credibility and let the award go to the true deserving winners, to include BP for the awe-inspiring, exciting, jaw-dropping `Avatar`.

    Although I strongly believe that Avatar should win both Best Picture and Best Director, as well as finish with the most awards that night (for Best Effects, Editing etc), it'll probably win Best Picture, with Best Director actually going to K.Bigelow. Predictions for the major awards:
    Best Picture: Avatar
    Best Director: The Hurt Locker

    (Most awards for the night: Avatar)

  • Conor  

    District 9 is the best movie from 2010. It totally mops the floor with avatar pony tail.

  • Alden  

    As incredible as the effects were in Avatar, I don't think that should warrant a Best Picture oscar. The plot was far from anything special. If it's going to be between Avatar and The Hurt Locker, its the latter that deserves it: original plot, and fantastic acting. Though if I had my way, Inglorious Basterds would get this award. It's better than both of those movies in my opinion.

  • Marek  

    thank you metacritic...this features add so much value to this site...unbelievably good!
    Very well thought-out and written. Just the right mix between facts, numbers and text and opinion.
    Metacritic just gets better and better...

  • Mike F.  

    "Avatar" was so bad it did not even deserve a nomination. The Academy cannot lower itself to pick the best film of the year based on what the general public thought of it. While it looked spectacular, Avatar has nothing else going for it. "The Hurt Locker," on the other hand, had an amazing script, powerful characters, and most amazingly, portrayed the war in Iraq with minimal bias or intended message. "Lord of the Rings" is incomparable to "Avatar" as LOTR, besides looking spectacular, had a great story, script, and acting to go along with it. LOTR deserved to win. The American public has consistently been a terrible indicator for what a great movie is. It is the same public who spent millions upon millions of dollars on movies like "Spiderman 3" and "Indiana Jones 4." Simply because a film garners a lot of box office proceeds does not mean it deserves to win best picture, let alone be nominated for it.

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