Oscars 2020: Harvard math grad uses data to predict winners with near-perfect accuracy

Oscar winners can be hard to predict, but for one Academy Awards soothsayer, it pays to have math on your side.

At least that’s the thinking of Harvard Applied Mathematics grad and “Oscarmetrics” author Ben Zauzmer, who uses data from the year’s earlier award ceremonies, like the Golden Globes and the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), to predict Academy Award winners with near-perfect accuracy.

In his most impressive year, Zauzmer’s 2018 Oscar picks went an impressive 20 for 21 — and correctly predicted what many considered to be an upset Best Picture victory for “The Shape of Water.”

“I’ve gathered a bunch of data from previous years — different award shows, which other categories a film is nominated in, Rotten Tomatoes scores — anything I can put a number on and I look in each category and see how good has this predictor done at predicting the Oscars in the past,” Zauzmer explained on Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM. “Things that have done a better job get more weight.”

This year, Zauzmer’s model is again predicting who we might see thanking the Academy come Sunday:

Best Actor prediction

“Joker” actor Joaquin Phoenix has been nominated for an Oscar three times in prior years, but has never won. This year, however, Zauzmer is predicting Phoenix has the best chance to take home Best Actor honors with about a 93% chance of winning the category.

“Joaquin Phoenix has won nearly everything there is to win for his terrifying performance as the Joker,” Zauzmer said.

Perhaps this year, Phoenix’s crowning accomplishment for the role will be that ever-elusive Oscar win.

Joaquin Phoenix has a good shot at winning his first Oscar for his performance in Joker, according to Zauzmer's model.
Joaquin Phoenix has a good shot at winning his first Oscar for his performance in Joker, according to Zauzmer's model.

Best Actress prediction

Things are looking just as lopsided statistically for the frontrunner in the battle for Best Actress. In Zauzmer’s model, “Judy” actress Renee Zellweger has about a 90% chance to take home the Oscar.

“To make matters easier for her, the Golden Globe winner for musical or comedy actress, Akwafina, wasn’t even nominated here so that really clears the path for Renee Zellweger,” Zauzmer said.

Renee Zellweger is the heavy favorite to win Best Actress, according to Zauzmer's modeling.
Renee Zellweger is the heavy favorite to win Best Actress, according to Zauzmer's modeling.

Best Director prediction

The award for Best Director is always hotly contested, and this year is a similar story with established icons like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino both getting nominated. However, neither Hollywood juggernaut is favored to win the category on Sunday in Zauzmer’s model.

Instead, 1917 director Sam Medes is the favorite to win, with “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho slightly behind at about a 20% chance.

“It’s looking like the math likes the guy who hasn’t won it in 20 years,” Zauzmer said about Mendes. “It’s just above that 50-50 mark.”

Sam Mendes is favored to win the Oscar for Best Director, according to Zauzmer's data.
Sam Mendes is favored to win the Oscar for Best Director, according to Zauzmer's data.

Best Supporting Actor prediction

The lopsidedness of predicting winners doesn’t stop at the leading role. For the category of Best Supporting Actor, Zazumer is projecting an easy win for Brad Pitt, who has infamously been shut out at the Academy Awards for acting roles, despite being nominated three times in prior individual categories.

“Brad Pitt did win an Oscar for producing ‘12 Years a Slave,’ but has never won an acting Oscar,” Zauzmer said. “The math says there’s a 91% bet that changes for his role as a stuntman in ‘Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.’”

Brad Pitt has a leading chance to win his first Oscar for an individual acting role for his part in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Zauzmer's model predicts.
Brad Pitt has a leading chance to win his first Oscar for an individual acting role for his part in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Zauzmer's model predicts.

Best Supporting Actress prediction

The same odds apply to the favorite in the category of Best Supporting Actress. For her supporting role in “Marriage Story,” actress Laura Dern is a more than 90% favorite to win the Oscar for the category.

“It’s a pretty rare year that all of the acting categories are so lopsided, that doesn’t happen very often,” Zauzmer said. “But this time around Laura Dern seems to be winning the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and so on, and therefore is likely to take home the Oscar.”

Laura Dern is favorited to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Marriage Story, according to Zauzmer's model.
Laura Dern is favorited to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Marriage Story, according to Zauzmer's model.

Best Picture prediction

Seemingly the hardest major category to predict this year, as has been the case in the past, is the the Oscar for Best Picture. With only about a 37% chance to win, this year’s favorite is 1917. But as Zauzmer notes, that’s hardly a guaranteed outcome.

“You still would take the field over it at only 37%, and you can’t rule out Parasite or Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, or The Irishman,” Zauzmer said. “But 1917, winner of the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, BAFTAs and top honors for drama at the Golden Globes, is your frontrunner.”

Zauzmer predicts 1917 to be the favorite for this year's Best Picture, but it still could potentially be upset by a swath of films in double digit territory, including Parasite.
Zauzmer predicts 1917 to be the favorite for this year's Best Picture, but it still could potentially be upset by a swath of films in double digit territory, including Parasite.

For all a complete list of Zauzmer’s Academy Awards picks, you can check out his article at The Hollywood Reporter.

Zack Guzman is the host of YFi PM as well as a senior writer and on-air reporter covering entrepreneurship, cannabis, startups, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.

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