How to Win Your Oscar Pool, with Math!

Nate Silver isn't doing the Oscars this year, and he's not that good at picking the winners anyway. But we spoke with the Harvard nerd trying to replace him, then double-checked with Silver's favorite indicators and Hollywood insiders, for the closest thing to a scientific Oscar ballot there is in 2013.

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Nate Silver isn't doing the Oscars the year. He's tried before, and he's not that good at calling them anyway—the world's foremost news prediction geek got four out of six major categories right in 2009. Two years ago, his Oscar pool picks would have fared better, if he hadn't told everyone to check off David Fincher at their party. (Update, Friday: Better late than never, Silver did his predictions.)

Good thing Harvard sophomore Ben Zauzmer is trying to make a name for himself as the Nate Silver of the Academy Awards. Last year his predictive formula nailed all eight of the "majors"—Best Picture, Best Director, the four acting awards, and the two for screenplay. Zauzmer went 15 for 20 overall. This year, he's been all over, with Popular Science calling his mathematical model the best of all the predictive measurements. And who better to trust, as nerds continue to win the war on pundits, than a kid who seeks to go beyond even the most trusted of (endless) Hollywood insider buzz?

Zauzmer may be young, but his original model is strong: He weighs the critics awards and industry guild honors through award season against Oscar data from the past 15 years, making sure each category has at least three indicators, to come up with a kind of likelihood-of-winning score. Each Zauzmer result "calculates percentages, not winners," he told us. For example, he added, "when Skyfall is the Cinematography leader with 30 percent, that means it is most likely to win, but there is still a 70 percent chance that it loses."

The Atlantic Wire spoke with Zauzmer several times since the Oscar nominations were announced to go inside his 2013 predictions, then double-checked with some of Silver's rules and favorite indicators—plus a couple of those almost as geeky Hollywood insiders for good measure. The result is the closest thing to a scientific Oscar ballot there is this year. We wouldn't recommend gambling on this math or anything, but grab your checklist and get going, or just trust the critics' picks at your own peril.

Best Picture

The geek's pick: Argo, with a 60 percent likelihood score.
The geeky explanation: In a very odd year, Hollywood conventional wisdom now seems to say that Argo is a shoo-in, based on everything else it has won. Ben Affleck's movie "was hurt by some things" like his Best Director nomination snub, Zauzmer says, but that got outweighed by "all the things it won." In Zauzmer's formula, the BAFTAs are weighted more heavily than the Golden Globes for Best Picture—they happen later, when momentum is at its peak—but it almost doesn't matter in this case: Argo won Best Picture everywhere. Lincoln is next on Zauzmer's prediction scale at 9 percent, tied with Silver Linings Playbook, the film that Entertainment Weekly Oscar "Prize Fighter" Anthony Breznican calls the "runner-up" choice—and Zauzmer says he wouldn't be surprised if either of them won. This all comes down to the curious case of Ben Affleck's vanishing nomination. Argo would have a higher score in Zauzmer's formula with a Best Director nod, and it's possible, Zauzmer says, that his math underestimates the value of aligning the two categories. Because while he's using 15 years's worth of data, the majority of those 15 years featured only five Best Picture nominees, when the Best Director-Best Picture overlap was more frequent. "Given that I would say it's very possible, logically speaking, that the math is not fully accounting for the lack of Best Director nomination for Argo," Zauzmer told us.
The second opinion: Intrade, which another mathematical Oscar predictor deems a good measure, gives Argo about an 83 percent chance of winning. Iain Pardoe, who has written a scientific paper about Oscar prediction theory, gives Best Picture to Lincoln this year at a 37 percent likelihood. But don't take Pardoe's word for it, Pardoe says: "I've never had such a low probability percentage for the top film." 
The bottom line: Trust in Argo. It adds up and makes sense.

Best Director

The geek's pick: Ang Lee for Life of Pi, at 48 percent. 
The geeky explanation: Like the geek said, Affleck is out of this race, which has confounded predictors and pundits alike. By Zauzmer's calculations, Lee gets the leg up from his BAFTA nomination. In his 15-years historical data set, all but one Best Director winner at the Oscars did not get a BAFTA nomination. Lee and Amour's Michael Haneke were the only two to get both Oscar and BAFTA nominations this year. That said, Zauzmer says he consider this one something of a toss-up. 
The second opinion: Pardoe, the predictive scientist, gives this one to Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and so does Intrade
The bottom line: Go with your gut, but go with either Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee.

Best Actor

The geek's pick: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, at 74 percent.
The geeky explanation: It's not really necessary, as this call should be pretty obvious to anyone who has paid any attention to the Oscars this year. Hugh Jackman, at 16 percent for Les Misérables, is the only other actor that figures on Zauzmer's map—and even that only got a bump from a win at the Golden Globes, where they split the acting awards in two.
The second opinion: Intrade gives Day-Lewis an overwhelming chance of winning.
The bottom line: Mr. Lincoln himself, Daniel Day-Lewis, obviously. Are you crazy?

Best Actress

The geek's pick: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, at 60 percent.
The geeky explanation: This category has long been a showdown, with split loyalties between Lawrence and Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain. Lately Amour's Emmanuelle Riva, who won the BAFTA this month, has also been starting to look like an outlier candidate on her way in, but Zauzmer says she's "hurting in other categories." The key to Lawrence's 35 percent edge over Chastain, according to Zauzmer, is her Screen Actors Guild win—it weighs less on his scale than her Golden Globe win in the musical or comedy, which itself weighs less than Chastain's Globe win for drama, but the combination is Lawrence's silver lining.
The second opinion: Intrade gives it to Lawrence, too, with about a 60 percent chance. But Sasha Stone, founder and editor of the state-of-the-race staple Awards Daily, tells The Atlantic Wire that there remains hope for Riva yet: "It's hard for me to imagine them not voting for her if they see the movie."
The bottom line: Relax. It's not the closest call of the night, and Jennifer Lawrence has good odds.

Best Supporting Actor

The geek's pick: Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, at 43 percent. 
The geeky explanation: This is another mind boggler, with all five of the nominees having already taken home trophies. Jones has only a slight advantage in most predictive models over Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz, who clocks in at 34 percent likelihood on Zauzmer's predictions list. But Waltz was the only one of the five who did not receive a SAG nomination, a trophy which Jones took home. That puts Waltz slightly below Jones on the Zauzmer scale, even though Waltz won the Golden Globe, which is weighted on a roughly equal level to the SAG win and where the voters love them some Tarantino. 
The second opinion: At Intrade Waltz also closely trails Jones.
The bottom line: If you want a slightly safer pick, then pick Tommy Lee Jones. Everyone in this category has already won an Oscar, but the oft-repeated line about Waltz is that he won too recently, for his performance in Inglourious Basterds, two years ago.

Best Supporting Actress

The geek's pick: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, at 69 percent. 
The geeky explanation: Has anyone really said anything to the contrary? "It's sort of a perfect storm," Zauzmer says. "There's nothing she did wrong in terms of getting the right indicators."
The second opinion: Intrade gives her a 96.9 percent chance. We'd tell her to start preparing her speech, but we know she already has.
The bottom line: Looks like Anne Hathaway forever. Or something.

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

The geek's pickArgo, at 39 percent. 
The geeky explanation: Argo nabbed the Writers Guild Award but faces tough competition. Silver Linings Playbook is at 24 percent in Zauzmer's math, and he wouldn't rule anything out, since the other nominees are all above 10 percent probability. Why is Argo tops? "There are two wins that matter most mathematically in that category: the Writers' Guild and the BAFTAs. "
The bottom line: It could be a night of Argo love.

Best Writing, Original Screenplay

The geek's pickZero Dark Thirty, at 54 percent. 
The geeky explanation: This race looks similar to the adapted screenplay award. Zero Dark Thirty, arguably the year's most controversial screenplay, got the WGA in this category as well, but Django won the BAFTA, making them the top two contenders. But Amour is right there with Django, too—they're neck-and-neck in Zauzmer's predictions at 20 and 21 percent. 
The second opinion: Though Stone, from Awards Daily, explains that there's a history of matching the guild award to the Oscar here, this year two nominees—Quentin Tarantino and Michael Haneke—weren't eligible for the top WGA prize.
The bottom line: Torture and all, choose Zero Dark Thirty, unless you've got the Quentin bug.

Best Foreign Language Film

The geek's pick: Amour with 70 percent.
The geeky explanation: It became the most mainstream hit of the foreign language films, and it's nominated for Best Picture. Those other nominations from the Academy push it way over the competition in Zauzmer's picks for this category, and it also won the Golden Globe for foreign film, which in Zauzmer's rankings are a "fairly decent indicator." 
The second opinion: Last year, one of Nate Silver's four simple rules for winning your Oscar pool was trusting in the Best Picture nomination, because it's a "boon" elsewhere.
The bottom line: All you need is Amour.

Best Documentary

The geek's pick: Searching for Sugar Man, at 80 percent.
The geeky explanation: Though Zauzmer says it's rare for a smaller category to have such a strong leader, Searching for Sugar Man had almost a "perfect sweep" among its indicators. The one exception, according to Zauzmer: the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle Association, which picked The Gatekeepers
The bottom line: You don't need much help—hurry up and check off Searching for Sugar Man.

Best Animated Feature Film

The geek's pickBrave, at 65 percent.
The geeky explanation: Brave, a Pixar film, only has real competition from Wreck-It Ralph, which won the Producers Guild Award. However, Brave got the BAFTA, which Zauzmer explains has a perfect record as an indicator for this category. 
The bottom line: We wouldn't overestimate Pixar love, even if it was one of their weaker entries. Plus, the unbiased formula says Brave all the way.

Best Original Score

The geek's pick: Life of Pi, at 54 percent.
The geeky explanation: There aren't many indicators or orchestral film-guild awards in this category, so no single nominee has an overwhelming chance of success in Zauzmer's formula. A Golden Globe win helped propel Mychael Danna's Life of Pi score into the most likely Oscar winner, well ahead of Argo, and even though the BAFTA went to Skyfall's Thomas Newman for the new Bond music. Skyfall, however, did not get a Best Picture nomination or a Golden Globe nomination. 
The second opinion: Newman has never won, despite 11 career Oscar nominations. Given Silver's guilt-trip rule—"if someone has been nominated a lot but has not won, they may build up some sympathy points"—there may be an edge for Skyfall.
The bottom line: The geeks, fittingly, call it for Life of Pi.

Best Original Song

The geek's pick: "Skyfall" from Skyfall, at 50 percent.
The geeky explanation: Once again, Zauzmer says there aren't many indicators: "Bascially what happens is there's the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, and a few others that aren't as great." In this case Zauzmer says he wouldn't be surprised if "Suddenly" from Les Misérables steals away the Oscar from Adele, the Golden Globe winning voice behind the new Bond theme. 
The second opinion: Stone, from Awards Daily, says Adele's still got this thing. 
The bottom line: Let the Skyfall. Let it crumble.

Best Cinematography

The geek's pick: Skyfall, at 30 percent.
The geeky explanation: This is close, too, with Skyfall only inching ahead in Zauzmer's rankings because of a Cinematographer's Guild award, even though it was hurt by not getting as many nominations overall. Lincoln and Life of Pi are close behind, and Anna Karenina can't be ruled out entirely. Get rid of Django from consideration, though. 
A second opinion: Sasha Stone puts Life of Pi in the top spot, noting that this award rarely goes to a film that doesn't have a Best Picture nomination. That said, Skyfall is number two on her list. Why? Roger Deakins is a longtime nominee without a win.
The bottom line: Give it to Skyfall, if only for Deakins.

Best Film Editing

The geek's pick: Argo, at 69 percent.
The geeky explanation: According to Zauzmer this is a done deal: "Everybody filling out their ballots should be picking Argo for editing," even though Silver Linings was able to eke out a win at the ACE Eddie Awards in the comedy or musical category. 
The second opinion: Stone agrees. 
The bottom line: If you don't choose Argo, Argo something to yourself.

Best Production Design

The geek's pick: Anna Karenina, at 31 percent. 
The geeky explanation: Well, this one is a nailbiter. The only movie in this category that Zauzmer says he can 100 percent rule out is The Hobbit. Everyone else is nearly on equal standing. Anna Karenina got the Art Directors Guild win in the "period film" category. Life of Pi snagged it in the "fantasy" category. Karenina's nod in the Oscars' costume design category lso inches it to the top of his list.
The second opinion: Awards Daily's Stone noted that Lincoln has so many nominations it would be unprecedented for it to take home only one Oscar. If you want to be risky, look for it winning below-the-line categories like this one. 
The bottom line: Well, Anna has less a chance of losing than anyone else, but this is one where we might advise you to go with your heart a little bit. You really loved Lincoln, we know you did.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The geek's pickLes Misérables, at 69 percent.
The geeky explanation: Just think of all those rotting French teeth in Les Misérables. Zauzmer's only prediction for a possible upset is The Hobbit, which has Lord of the Rings precedent to bank on—no reason not to take a franchise's award history into account, he figures, even though there was no "hairstyling" part in the category back then.
The second opinion: GoldDerby's experts give this one to The Hobbit. So many dwarves, you guys. However, Awards Daily's Stone says: "My theory is that Les Misérables has 8 nominations which means it will likely pick up awards where it can and makeup might be one of those."
The bottom line: If you believe in the power of math—and the power of hair—go with Les Miz.

Best Costume Design

The geek's pick: Anna Karenina, at 39 percent. 
The geeky explanation: Karenina's Jacqueline Durran won the Costume Designers Guild award in the period costume category, but Zauzmer says that amounts to just a small boost in his calculations. Typically the BAFTA and the full scope of Costume Guild nominations are important to an Oscar win. And four out of five Academy Award nominees this year got nominations for both of those: "At that point, the data from past years is not strong enough to say that winning BAFTA or the Guild gives a huge boost. Instead, it gives a small boost, which is exactly what Anna Karenina got." 
The second opinion: Stone says of the Anna Karenina costumes: "They are so pretty. Anyone who looks at them would have to pick Anna Karenina."
The bottom line: Wasn't Anna Karenina basically made for the costumes?

Best Visual Effects

The geek's pick: Life of Pi, at 78 percent. 
The geeky explanation: "Roughly three out of every four years Life of Pi would win," Zauzmer says, based on historical data and Pi's trail this awards season. It won the BAFTA, won the VES Award for Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Feature Motion Picture, and was honored frequently in the Academy's nominations.
The bottom lineIsn't the tiger pretty? Life of Pi.

Best Sound Mixing

The geek's pick: Les Misérables, at 63 percent.
The geeky explanation? Per Zauzmer's calculations, history tells us that if you win the BAFTA and the Cinema Audio Society Award in this category, you're going to win the Oscar. Les Miz has both of those under its belt. 
The bottom line: You heard the people sing, right? Give them this award. Les Misérables.

Best Sound Editing

The geek's pickSkyfall,at 44 percent. 
The geeky explanation: In Zauzmer's formula Sound Editing usually goes to the winner of the BAFTAs—except Les Misérables won the BAFTA this year, and it's not up for the Oscar. That means the key lies within the Motion Picture Sound Editors, where Skyfall won the award for sound effects and foley, while Life of Pi won for musical sound editing as well as for dialogue and additional dialogue recording. Zauzmer found that the awards for music from the MPSE tend not be strong predictors, whereas the award for sound effects and foley has predicted "a little over half." 
The bottom line: Close, but Skyfall.

Best Documentary Short; Best Short Film, Live Action; Best Short Film, Animated

We're grouping these three categories together, because they're tough—and almost defy math. According to Zauzmer there just "isn't enough data" to make calculations about them. Even an Oscar-watcher like Stone at Awards Daily admits that these three aren't dependent on "stats and history." Shorts, Stone told The Wire, are unpredictable and can win on sentimentality, production value, or, in the case of documentary shorts, gravity. But really, in this one, your guess is as good as any geeks—not that there aren't handicaps. For what it's worth, Stone told us that she thinks the frontrunners are CurfewPaperman, and Open Heart. This year could change things, though, as more people will be voting than ever before. Even if there are only so many number-crunching Oscar geeks out there.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.