The Oscars: How to Predict the Best Picture Winner

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

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...

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

Comments (25)

  • epixsavior  

    adding a features section to metacritic was f***ing genius. this article was thorough, well thought-out and uses scientific analysis to back up its viewpoints/predictions. very well done. this gets better every year.

    personally, the blind side? really? precious owns it in the tear-jerker, inspirational movie quota. why?

    district 9: more exciting use of its ideas than most others would have done with the same concept. softens its brains in third act for non-stop action,
    (as all-profitable recent sci-fi movies in america have to do). will never, ever win but was nominated to give it credit for standing out and giving relevance to it's genre.

    they will do an upset and give the hurt locker best picture just to get cameron off his high horse and attempt to prove that they dont lead towards more populist fare. was pretty entertaining though, of course the CGI/3D was the best part.

    but seriously, the blind side? the blind side??? crash and the sixth sense made more sense being nominated in comparison.

    probably a ploy to get the 20 million people who saw the blind side a reason to watch the oscars. it works for what it is, but precious does this kind of thing so much better. i dont see oscar quality anywhere in the blind side...

    except maybe in sandra bullock's a**.

  • Keaton Johnsen  

    I don't really have much to say other than I agree with really everything epixsavior said. I keep complaining to all of my friends about how The Blind Side was picked and a great film like Invictus was snuffed.
    And as much as I want District 9 to win for its originality, brains, and balls-out action, I know it won't, but I can still pray.

  • Nick  

    This is spectacular. I visited Metacritic every day anyway, but this is a huge jackpot bonus.

    Anyway, I've been a believer in the underdog ever since by beloved Crash pulled one out for me in 06. The academy has done alright, but them picking LOTR scares the **** out of me. That gives Avatar hope, as does its ridiculous box office. But I have a major crush on possibly my favorite movie of the last decade, Up in the Air. I know everyone's not in love, but the fact that the Academy got behind Crash (and the fact that most people who liked the movie loved it) gives me hope. Inglourious should be considered a contender. Everyone loves Tarantino, and it was seriously considered for Golden Globe Drama. Great cast, box office, editing, plot, cool enough for the Academy, dramatic enough too. Hurt Locker wouldn't suck. Avatar, though, would. It's simply not the best movie this year, plain and simple.

  • David Johnson  

    Ah, very impressive, but you've forgotten the most important factor ... POLITICS!!!

    Whether it be giving the award to 'black' actors when they technically didn't deserve them (i.e.: Denzel Washington & Halle Berry in the same year), or recently with the lefty-greeny vote giving Al Gore the award for his monstrously-exaggerated 'documentary', the Academy will go with the left every time.

    As such, which do you think they'll pick, a movie that shows true heroism in the face of war and adversity (The Hurt Locker), or a blatantly anti-American, green-loving fairy tale (Avatar)???

    The defense rests ...

  • Peter  

    Metacritic just gets better and better

  • Aiden  

    Good feature, I like both Avatar and the Hurt Locker, so it seems I won't be disappointed either way. =)

  • steve4922  

    You've left out what is probably the single most predictive award in terms of the best picture Oscar--the Director's Guild Award, which Kathyrn Bigelow (the director of "The Hurt Locker" won on January 30. While James Cameron won this award in 1998 for directing Titanic, he didn't win this year. With "The Hurt Locker" having won best picture and director from the Broadcast Film Critics, the Producers Guild Award and the Directors Guild Award, and having tied with Avatar for the most Oscar nominations, it is the frontrunner at this point.

  • Mikey  

    Avatar honestly looked like the dumbest movie ever, until I went and saw it...then saw it again and again. It gets better every time when you realize that a ot of creativity went into the movie, and that it wasn't just ripped off of Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves like everyone says. I think it should win the best picture award for revolutionalizing the way movies are made. People watch movies to be entertained, and this movie really gets the message across.

  • Kevin  

    I agree with Steve - the DGA has accurately predicted the Best Picture Oscar for 58 out of the past 60 years. Given that Avatar also lacks acting or writing noms, that easily puts Hurt Locker as the frontrunner for Best Picture. And quite frankly, I'm praying it does win. While Avatar is far from the best of the year, and as such doesn't deserve the award. My faith has been shaken recently when the Academy chose to do things like snub Children of Men for a BP nom and choose The Lives of Others over Pan's Labyrinth, and if they choose Avatar this year that will pretty much be the final nail in the coffin.

  • Christopher G  

    The last time a movie without either an acting or writing nomination won best picture was Grand Hotel back in 1932. That's the history Avatar is going against. Also I think people underestimate the Academy's resistance to science fiction. Lord of the Rings in not science fiction, it is fantasy. That said Avatar can still win BP. I feel pretty strongly, though am not 100%, that Bigalow will take Best Director. On picture I think it's a three way race between Avatar, Hurt Locker, and Inglorious Basterds. The latter is a bigtime longshot, but at this point it has a better chance than Up in the Air which may very well get shut out on awards night.

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