Oscar Nominations vs. Best Picture Winner

Since the 85th Academy Awards nominations were announced, Lincoln has emerged as the tentative frontrunner among a plurality of headline writers, bloggers, and oddsmakers. This was fueled in large part by the fact that Steven Spielberg’s Civil War epic garnered 12 nominations, the most of any film.

But does receiving the most nominations really mean that a movie is most likely to win Best Picture? The short answer is yes – 2/3 of the time. But for movie buffs and math nerds, here is the longer answer.

Over the 84 years of Oscars, the movie that received the most nominations (including ties for first place) among the Best Picture nominees went on to take the top prize in 56 years, exactly 2/3 of the time.

The higher a movie ranks in nominations among its Best Picture competitors, the more likely it is to win: 85% of winners came in the top two in nominations, and 93% of the winners at least made bronze. So should you go ahead and fill out your Oscar ballot with Lincoln or Life of Pi, this year’s runner-up with 11 nominations?

Not so fast. For 68 of the Oscars’ 84 years, there were only five nominees. In the inaugural event in 1928, there were only three. Making top three was an easier feat in many years than in 2012, a year with nine nominees for Best Picture.

Plus, some underdogs have pulled off big upsets over the years. Grand Hotel (1932) is the only movie to win Best Picture on its only nomination, meaning it was actually tied for fifth place among the eight Best Picture nominees that year (Arrowsmith and The Champ received four nods, while Bad Girl and Shanghai Express had three). In the five-nominee era (1929-1931, 1944-2008), three movies have tied for last and won: In the Heat of the Night (1967) with seven nominations, Annie Hall (1977) with five, and Ordinary People (1980) with six.

Let’s break this down a bit further. The graph below shows that movies with at least seven nominations tend to win Best Picture much more often than those with six or fewer – specifically, 73 to 11.

OscarGraph1

This next graph shows how many Best Picture nominees received a given number of Oscar nominations:

OscarGraph2

As you can see, 17 movies have been nominated for Best Picture but nothing else, most recently The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

The longest streak of years in which the nominations leader won Best Picture is nine, in both 1982-1990 and 1992-2000. The movie that broke what could have been a 19-year streak was Silence of the Lambs (1991), which defeated nominations leader Bugsy. The most consecutive years in which the nominations leader did not win Best Picture is just three. This happened in 1928-1930 and 2004-2006. As a matter of fact, 2005 was the only year in which the leader was not nominated for Best Picture at all, when eight-time nominee Dreamgirls missed the cut.

Let’s get back to the original question: What does the number of nominations indicate about the probability of winning Best Picture? Using a statistical model known as logistic regression, the graph looks like this:

OscarGraph3

Note that the calculations used to make the above graph include all 84 years, regardless of the number of nominees or categories in each year, so these numbers are not perfect predictors for 2012. If we use linear regression instead, each additional nomination adds a 5.4% chance of winning Best Picture.

While none of this is enough to predict Lincoln or Life of Pi with much confidence – I’ll need to see some of the other awards season results before I can make that call on this website on February 19 – there are some things we can learn.

The record for coming from behind was set in 1977. Five-time nominee Annie Hall overcame a six-nomination deficit to beat out The Turning Point and Julia, which each had 11. That means that this year, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, or Zero Dark Thirty would need to pull off a never-before-accomplished feat in order to stage an upset. But there’s a reason we all still watch the Academy Awards with rapt attention – regardless of all the numbers, anything can happen when the final envelope is opened.



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