best picture winner predicted using science

So can you pick the winner of best picture at the Academy Awards on Monday by studying how critics and audiences have rated past winners?

Nine’s visual stories team developer Nathanael Scott has delved into Oscars history to highlight when the audience’s favourite film – based on tens of thousands of scores on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes – has triumphed.

Despite the popular view that the Oscars favours films that critics prefer, this method of using audience scores would have predicted the upset wins by Green Book over Roma in 2019 and Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2006.

It would also have predicted wins by The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby and Gladiator since 2000.

Using this method (see below) the data suggests a major upset this year, with King Richard (98 per cent) winning ahead of favourites The Power of the Dog (76 per cent) and CODA (93 per cent).

But there are other years when it would have paid to go for the films that critics preferred (again based on Rotten Tomatoes rankings), including the upset win by Moonlight over La La Land and triumphs by Parasite, Argo and The Artist.

Despite the perception that critics are much more aligned with Oscar voters than audiences, it has only happened four times since 2000.

But if you apply this approach to this year’s nominees (see below) the winner would be another huge surprise – Japanese drama Drive My Car (97 per cent) edging out favourites The Power of the Dog (94 per cent) and CODA (95 per cent).

Let’s take another approach: can a huge gap between what critics and audiences prefer predict a winner?

Surprisingly, there have been four times in Oscars history when the winner has had an especially wide gulf (at least 15 percentage points) between the two measures. Critics loved Titanic (89 per cent) but audiences – rating the film online in recent years rather than at the time – have been far less enthusiastic (69 per cent).

The same applied for past best picture winners Rocky, Tom Jones and, even further back in the past, The Great Ziegfeld.

Best picture winners Rocky and Titanic were preferred by critics, while Gladiator was a favourite with audiences.Credit:AP, Merie W. Wallace/20th Century Fox, Reuters

Using this principle, the winner on Monday (see below) would be another surprise: Licorice Pizza, which critics have gushed about (91 per cent) but audiences have been much less enthusiastic about (65 per cent).

Taking the reverse approach, audiences have been a long way ahead of critics (a gap of at least 14 percentage points) when it came to best picture wins for Crash, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump and Out of Africa.

This method (see below) would have Don’t Look Up winning best picture this year.

Another approach – looking at films that critics and audiences both consider great – would have predicted many more best picture wins.

Among them: The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Million Dollar Baby and, further back in Oscars history, such classics as Schindler’s List, The Silence of the Lambs and the first two Godfather movies.

So what films do both critics and audiences love equally this year?

The data (see below) suggests a tie for best picture – West Side Story (92 per cent with critics, 94 per cent with audiences) and CODA (93 per cent, 95 per cent). Now that would be a first at the Oscars!

Let’s go closer to home and see whether the best-reviewed film by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald critics points us towards a winner. It has happened twice in the past decade, with Spotlight and Moonlight both receiving four-and-a-half stars from our critics.

It was more common for films that received four stars to win at the Oscars, including Nomadland, Parasite, Green Book, Birdman and Twelve Years a Slave.

The best reviewed film over the decade, La La Land with five stars, won best picture for just over two minutes until, in the biggest fiasco in Oscars history, it was revealed that Moonlight had really won.

And this year? Based on the star ratings by Nine critics (see below), there would be another tie for best picture between Drive My Car and Licorice Pizza, which both received four-and-a-half stars.

A much more reliable – but far from infallible – predictor of the best picture winner is looking at what film won at the American Producers Guild Awards. This year, the surprise triumph by CODA had many Hollywood pundits scrambling to change their predictions from long-time favourite The Power of the Dog.

But there are many factors that influence voting for best picture, which is why the winner can still be a surprise.

There is the amount of money spent on campaigning, the impact of controversies, whether a film is seen as suiting the times or has a powerful theme that voters connect with and the experience of watching a film in a cinema vs at home. Then there is the influence of the Academy rapidly expanding its membership to become more diverse and even whether the preferential voting system favours certain nominees.


Sometimes there is just a consensus that one film deserves to be rewarded and another, when voters finally get around to watching it, has been over-praised.

But if King Richard, Licorice Pizza or Don’t Look Up wins best picture or if there is an historic tie – either Drive My Car/Licorice Pizza or West Side Story/ CODA – remember where you read it first.

The 94th Academy Awards will air Monday on Seven and 7plus, live from 11am and replayed at 9.40pm. Follow our live blog of the red carpet and ceremony from 9am.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Email the writer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.

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