The Oscars: How to Predict the Best Picture Winner

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

Putting it all together

Do any other factors correlate with the selection of the best picture winner in recent years? Here are a few, with a look at how they affect our three likeliest contenders (Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Up -- plus Up in the Air thrown in for good measure).

The Vegas factor

Way back on the first page of this article, we indicated that Vegas odds currently pegged Avatar as the favorite to win best picture this year. How accurate have oddsmakers been in the past? It turns out that Vegas is on a winning streak. Last year, bookmakers correctly made Slumdog Millionaire the favorite, the year before that, the favorite was No Country for Old Men (another correct pick), and before that, The Departed was yet another correct forecast. You'll have to go back to 2006, when Crash crashed the party, to find an instance where the title with the best odds didn't win. (Crash had the second-best odds that year, however.)

This year, by the way, The Hurt Locker currently has the second-best odds out of the 10 nominees -- not too terribly far behind Avatar -- while Up in the Air is third-best, and Up is one of the biggest longshots.

GOOD FOR: Avatar, The Hurt Locker (to a lesser extent)
BAD FOR: Up, Up in the Air

The genre factor

While Avatar seems like a safe pick to make in your Oscar pool, the fact remains that the Academy prefers dramas, and no science fiction movie has ever been named best picture. (In fact, they rarely ever get nominated.) There is a precedent, however, if you expand the genre to sci-fi/fantasy: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 94, was, like Avatar, an epic, special-effects-filled adventure and both a critical and commercial hit. Crucially, both films have attracted audiences well beyond fans of their respective genres, and Avatar further transcends its genre through its groundbreaking use of technology (it's literally unlike few other movies, sci-fi or otherwise). In other words, if there is ever going to be a sci-fi best picture winner, Avatar seems like the best possible candidate. (If you think District 9 has a chance, you must be part prawn.)

Up is similarly hindered by the Academy's overwhelming historical preference for live-action films. Prior to this year, Disney's 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast was the only animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, so the Academy could very well decide that the mere act of nominating Up was honor enough in itself. But it is the existence of the separate animated feature category that really dooms Up's chances, since voters could pass over Up for best picture but still give it a statuette in the animated category.

GOOD FOR: The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air
BAD FOR: Avatar, Up

The actor factor

Can a film like Avatar (or, for that matter, Up) win without receiving a single nomination in any of the four acting categories? It's happened before, as recently as ... last year, when Slumdog Millionaire pulled off the feat. The Return of the King and Braveheart are among ten other films that have done the same.

GOOD FOR: The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air
BAD FOR: Avatar, Up

The director factor

How often does the best picture winner also have its director nominated for an Oscar that same year? Virtually every year. 1989's Driving Miss Daisy was the last film to win best picture without having its director nominated; prior to that, it happened just two other times. That would seem to rule out Up (as well as four other films that don't to seem have much of a chance anyway).

GOOD FOR: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air
BAD FOR: Up

The writer factor

Avatar and The Blind Side are the only two of the 10 best picture nominees not to be nominated in one of the twin screenplay categories. The last best picture winner to find itself in a similar situation was ... James Cameron's Titanic, which also failed to secure a writing nomination. If it didn't stop Cameron in 1998, perhaps it won't be a factor for Avatar in 2010.

For those best picture winners that were nominated in a screenplay category as well, does the Academy show a preference based on the type of story (adapted or original)? Surprisingly, yes. Only about one quarter of best picture winners in history are original stories, while an overwhelming majority are based on preexisting material. That's good news for both Precious and Up in the Air (and they need it, based on what we've explored above), which not only fall into the adapted screenplay category, but are based on novels -- the most frequent type of source material for best picture winners (accounting for just over half of all best picture victors in Oscar history).

GOOD FOR: The Hurt Locker, Up, Up in the Air
BAD FOR: Avatar

The editor factor

Los Angeles Times awards expert Tom O'Neil points out that only nine movies in history have received the best picture trophy without also receiving a nomination for film editing (at least, since the editing award was first introduced in 1934). The last film to pull off such a feat was 1980's Ordinary People. O'Neil cites Brokeback Mountain as a recent example of an expected best picture winner that failed to win the award -- and also failed to secure an editing nomination. This year, of the major contenders, neither Up nor Up in the Air receiving an editing nomination.

GOOD FOR: Avatar, The Hurt Locker
BAD FOR: Up, Up in the Air

The number of awards factor

Avatar and The Hurt Locker tied for the lead in total number of nominations, with nine apiece. How often do films that receive the most nominations fail to win best picture? Only a few times in Oscar history -- but those occurrences were very recent. The 2006 musical Dreamgirls received a year-leading 8 nominations, but was not actually nominated for best picture (which made it rather impossible for it to win). The following year, There Will Be Blood tied for the nomination lead, and did not win best picture; however, the film it was tied with (No Country for Old Men) did take home the ultimate trophy. And last year, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button dominated the field with a leading 13 nominations -- including one for best picture -- but lost out to Slumdog Millionaire.

GOOD FOR: Avatar, The Hurt Locker
BAD FOR: Up, Up in the Air

To sum up

These extra factors would seem to increase The Hurt Locker's chances, while putting the final nail in the coffin for Up. While we wouldn't completely rule out Up in the Air, our (figurative) money is on either Avatar or The Hurt Locker, with an inclination toward the former. In other words, exactly what we were thinking before we started this exercise.

Your picks (not yet, but soon!)

Start thinking about your pick for best picture, as well as the other Oscar categories. Coming later this week (let's call it "tomorrow-ish"), we'll open up voting for this year's Academy Award winners, to see if Metacritic users can out-pick the expert prognosticators.

Of course, if you would like to discuss the various best picture nominees below, we're curious to see what you have to say ...

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

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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