Sunday Is Oscar Night—Can Anyone Beat the Prediction Algorithms?

Microsoft researcher David Rothschild has all the data, but little first-hand knowledge

3 min read

Sunday Is Oscar Night—Can Anyone Beat the Prediction Algorithms?

In my podcast interview with Microsoft economist David Rothschild about his prediction algorithms for the small-data domain of the Academy Awards, I promised to post my personal predictions for the categories I care most about.

Rothschild took pride, in the interview, in the fact that he's seen few of the films. He says that makes it easier to do. I agree. I saw all 9 Best-Picture nominees and another 4 films that received nominations in the 10 categories below. In total, I saw 51 of the 54 nominations here. (I'm missing two in Cinematography, and Naomi Watts's performance in The Impossible.) That creates a schism between who I think will win based on my intuitions about Academy voters, who I think will win looking at Rothschild's data, and who I want to win.

I also saw a number of other movies worthy of Oscar attention, including Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Hunger Games, and The Color Wheel. I'd like to thank the podcast "Filmspotting" for introducing me to those films, along with Footnote, Killer Joe, and Searching for Sugar Man, an amazing film that's nominated for Best Documentary. While I'm giving shout-outs, I've learned a lot about some other movies this year by listening, in podcast form, to two of KCRW's radio shows, "The Treatment" and "The Business."

I saw many of the films in theaters, but quite a few viaNetflix (both disk and Instant), and as iTunes rental. One relatively new development this year is the number of movies that are available for rental, either through iTunes or on-demand cable services, while they're still in theaters. The jury is out on whether that will help or hinter them at the box office.

More and more movies are going straight to rental, as well—and making a profit. It will be interesting to see what happens when an Oscar-worthy film fails to be released in theaters—will Hollywood ignore it? That almost happened with independent filmmaker Ed Burns's The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, a wonderful film that didn't quite go straight to rental (it had a one-week run in Chicago and one performance in New York, which is where I caught it) and wasn't quite of Oscar caliber.

In the end, Rothschild's work is about who will win, so here are my predictions about that, along with some notes about who I would have voted for were I a member of the Academy.

Listeners can go to PredictWise for David Rothschild’s latest predictions. Or grab his Oscars Ballot Predictor and join the predicting fun!

Best PictureArgo. My own favorite movie of the year, among those nominated, was Amour, with Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master close behind.

DirectingAng Lee (Life of Pi) should win, though my own vote would be split between Michael Haneke (Amour) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). I would put the frontrunner, Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), a distant fifth. In fact, I don't even know why he is nominated.

Actor—It won't bother me when Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) wins, though I might have voted for Joaquin Phoenix (The Master). Denzel Washington (Flight) was remarkable as well.

Actress—Again, it won't bother me when Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) wins, in fact I might have voted for her as well, because of The Hunger Games. Otherwise, my choices are Emmanuelle Riva, followed closely by Quvenzhané Wallis.

Supporting ActorChristoph Waltz (Django Unchained), though it wouldn’t bother me if Alan Arkin won for Argo.

Supporting ActressAnne Hathaway (Les Misérables) will win, but I think Helen Hunt (The Sessions) deserves it.

Adapted ScreenplayTony Kushner, though I think it a pretty mediocre story, compared to Alibar & Zeitlin’s (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Chris Terrio’s (Argo).

Original ScreenplayMark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), though my choice would be Michael Haneke (Amour) or Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained).

Cinematography—No argument about Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) deserving this.

Film Editing—It's impossible to know how much of the final film is due to the work of the editor, but Tichenor & Goldenberg (Zero Dark Thirty) did a remarkable job.

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