Predicting the Best Picture Winner Based on Underdog Status

Apparently the best way to sell a film as a Best Picture winner is to tell everyone you have no chance of winning.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Apparently the best way to sell a film as a Best Picture winner is to tell everyone you have no chance of winning. At least, that's the impression the Academy Award political machine is under this year, according to The New York Times.

One example of that logic: “You may not think of ‘American Hustle,’ one of the most critically acclaimed films this awards season, as an underdog, but director David O. Russell faced some pretty major obstacles,” correspondent Juju Chang said on ABC's Nightline recently. But actually, we think Hustle is the least underdoggy of the underdogs. We found which films were the least likely to be the least likely to win, based on these (pseudo)scientific measurements:

  • Release Date: The Academy has a short memory. More points if you're old news.  
  • Reviews: Nothing says Best Picture underdog like a movie no one liked. More points for a lower Metacritic score.
  • Subject Matter: Slavery and AIDS are harder to sell than fake sheiks and Jonah Hill on Quaaludes. More points for being depressing.
  • Star Power: Most of these movies have several stars who could carry films on their own. More points for fewer headliners. 
  • Awards: How many awards has the movie won so far? More points for losing more. Runner-up and second place awards aren't counted as wins or losses. Being nominated but not winning anything counts as a loss. Winning counts as winning.

Based on our calculations, here's who's most likely to pull an Argo, come from behind and win Best Picture.

1. Nebraska

Release: November 15 (7/10)

Reviews: 86 (7/10)

Subject Matter: Family. This is the small, intimate, indie character study of the race. The actual underdog. (8/10)

Star Power: See above. (7/10)

Awards: 15 wins, 93 losses (10/10)

Score: 39

2. Captain Phillips

Release: November 11 (7/10)

Reviews: 83 (8/10)

Subject Matter: Somali pirates. This is one of those serious news topics that no one really cares about even though they should. (8/10)

Star Power: Tom Hanks isn't an underdog. (4/10)

Awards: 4 wins, 42 losses (8/10)

Score: 35

3. Her

Release: December 18 (5/10)

Reviews: 91 (6/10)

Subject Matter: Technology, and our relationship to it. This would normally be an easy sell, but we don't see the Academy getting it the way younger audiences would. (6/10)

Star Power: Joaquin Phoenix is famous, but didn't even get nominated. Amy Adams' star power is serving Hustle, and Scarlett Johansson doesn't actually appear in the movie. (7/10)

Awards: 27 wins, 57 losses (7/10)

Score: 31

4. The Wolf of Wall Street

Release: December 25 (4/10)

Reviews: 75 (9/10)

Subject Matter: Drugs. Booze. Women. White collar crime. (5/10)

Star Power: Leonardo DiCaprio's underdog mojo is reserved for his own Best Actor prospects. Always the bridesmaid. (4/10) 

Awards: 9 wins, 48 losses (8/10)

Score: 30

5. Dallas Buyers Club

Release: November 1 (8/10)

Reviews: 84 (8/10)

Subject Matter: AIDS is another tough sell. At the same time, Jared Leto's portrayal of a transgender woman has been controversial. (7/10)

Star Power: Suddenly Matthew McConaughey is a serious actor, and the frontrunner for best supporting actor, and Leto is the front runner for best supporting actor. Jennifer Garner's in the movie too, as any good Alias fan knows. (4/10)

Awards: 62 wins, 34 losses (2/10)

Score: 29

5. Philomena

Release: November 22 (6/10)

Reviews: 76 (9/10)

Subject Matter: Distinguished British people bonding, exploring America, looking for a long lost son. This has the Academy written all over it. (3/10)

Star Power: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are not underdogs, but they're not exactly hip either. (4/10)

Awards: 17 wins, 43 losses (7/10)

Score: 29

7. 12 Years a Slave

Release: October 18 (9/10)

Reviews: 97 (4/10)

Subject Matter: Slavery. People are literally afraid to see this movie, they think it's so depressing, and some of the other studios are banking on that. At the same time, there's the "year of the black movie" narrative that has helped propel the film. (7/10)

Star Power: While Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o weren't that famous before this film, benevolent white characters played by Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch dial down the underdog factor. And then there's Michael Fassbender, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Also Steve McQueen is pretty famous at this point, for a guy whose Shame failed to deliver at the Oscars. (6/10)

Awards: 162 win, 132 losses (2/10)

Score: 28

8. Gravity

Release: October 4 (10/10)

Reviews: 96 (5/10)

Subject Matter: Space, which is both beautiful and terrifying. But then, the movie doesn't have much of a plot and is banking on visual effects. (8/10)

Star Power: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are two of our national treasures. (2/10)

Awards: 101 wins, 52 losses (1/10)

Score: 26

9. American Hustle

Release: December 13 (5/10)

Reviews: 90 (6/10)

Subject Matter: Who even knows? ABSCAM? Hair? Jennifer Lawrence's nail polish that kind of smells like garbage? Whatever it was, it wasn't a hard sell. (3/10)

Star Power: Be serious. (2/10)

Awards: 31 wins, 72 losses (8/10)

Score: 24

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