6 tips for winning your Oscar pool
Published Friday, February 28, 2014 6:30AM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 28, 2014 1:10PM EST
Hoping to come out the big winner Sunday night in your Oscar pool? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Picking the winners for the big categories -- best film, director, actor, actress -- that’s one thing. There is no shortage of expert predictions for those.
But it’s all those little categories, like sound editing, production design, best foreign film -- categories that might be filled with names and films never heard of -- that can trip you up and separate you from Oscar pool glory.
We can’t tell you who to vote for. But what we can give you are a few things to think about when you fill out your ballot, a few tips, shall we say, for your consideration.
1. Know the Academy
The first thing to know about the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences Academy is that it’s huge, with more than 5,700 members, and all with very different ideas of what makes a great film.
According to a Los Angeles Times study a couple of years ago, Academy members are also a whole lot less diverse than the movie-going public.
- A full 94 per cent are Caucasian
- Only two per cent are Black
- More than three-quarters are men, and they have a median age of 62; and
- Voters younger than 50 constitute just 14 per cent of the membership
And since Academy membership is for life, the membership even includes hundreds of former filmmakers who’ve gone on to other careers and haven't worked on a movie in ages.
Do as you will with this information, but knowing that the Academy is comprised mostly of older men might help to explain a few things, such as why it tends to favour historical dramas over highly technical or innovative films, or why it tends to reward aging male actors and young female actors. Or maybe it doesn’t. But it’s something to consider.
2. Remember: They wing it too
Academy members, it may surprise you to learn, are a lot like the rest of us. And that means: busy. They too had trouble finding time to sit down and watch all the “must-see” films along with a few “have-you-seen” films. Sure, the studios sent screener DVDs to their homes, but with all the “Oscar bait” films loaded onto the back half of the year, there’s often not enough time to watch them all, much less re-watch them to take note of the sound editing choices, or makeup, or the score.
Interestingly, the Academy seems to acknowledge this; in five categories – Animated Short Film, Live Action Short Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, and Foreign Language Film – members are only allowed to vote after attesting they have seen all of the nominated films in those categories.
All of that to say that it’s safe to assume that, when Academy members scanned through all 24 categories on their ballots, and they sometimes didn’t know what to pick, they just went with their gut. So that could mean their choices will be less about the intrinsic achievement in a particular film, and more about how they felt about the film in general.
Which makes this year’s Best Makeup category interesting. Of the three nominees -- “Dallas Buyers Club;” “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa;” and “The Lone Ranger” -- “Bad Grandpa” likely had the most ambitious makeup.
Lead actor/prankster Johnny Knoxville reportedly spent three to four hours in a makeup chair every day to get ready for his role as an octogenarian. Even his prank victims couldn’t tell it was makeup. Will Oscar voters reward that? Or will the idea of making a “Jackass” movie an "Academy Award-winning Jackass movie" be just too much to fathom?
3. Check the precedents
A standard, well-tested method for choosing winners in an Oscar pool is to check what’s been winning at the award galas leading up to the Oscars. But that doesn’t mean give them all the same weighting. Awards from film critic groups, such as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, for example, tend to be far less reliable predictors than actual filmmakers. They might tell you who ought to win, but they often won’t tell you who will win.
For that, the best indicators are the guild award winners. That’s the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Director's Guild Awards, the Golden Reel Awards (the guild for Sound Editors, etc. Many of these guild members are also members of the Academy, so there‘s a good chance they‘re going to vote the same way for both.
Thankfully, just about every Oscar category has a corresponding guild award show, so look up their picks before deciding your own.
As for the Golden Globe Awards, they might be the biggest award show ahead of the Oscars, but historically, they haven’t been a very good predictor of Academy Award winners. There’s a good reason for that: the Golden Globes are handed out by the Foreign Press Association -- journalists and the like, who are generally not Academy members.
Britain's BAFTA Award winners are also good bellwethers for Oscar wins -- particularly since a few hundred BAFTA voters are also Academy members. In the last five years, their choice for Best Picture has also gone on to win the Oscar as well.
But then, these rules aren’t hard and fast. “Dallas Buyers Club"’s Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto -- who both snagged Golden Globes and are considered frontrunners for Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars -- didn’t win BAFTA Awards, because they weren't even nominated.
4. Crunch the numbers -- or at least let someone else do it
In the last few years, a number of online betting sites and statistics geeks have taken a far more scientific approach to Oscar predictions, creating algorithms that can spot winners using math, just as statistician Nate Silver did so successfully with the 2012 U.S. election.
One such site, Gold Derby.com, predicts winners using four key indicators:
- Picks of top movie critics from top news services and publications, such as the Hollywood Reporter and Reuters;
- Picks of its own editors;
- Its site users‘ choices; and
Its Top 24 users who scored best at predicting the same awards last year.
The predictions are listed in various charts and aggregated into racetrack odds and percentages.
Other sites, such as TheCredits.org, looks at online "buzz," noting the numbers of mentions of nominees on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and film-related sites to create its predictions.
Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) an applied math major at Harvard, has his own formula, weighing industry guild honours along with critics' scores against Oscar data from the past 15 years to calculate percentages.
This year, he’s working with the Hollywood Reporter but tells them he’s the first to admit his process isn't perfect, and that even statistical underdogs can come out ahead.
"If the Oscars were perfectly predictable with math, the suspense would be gone," he writes.
At the moment, his model has "Gravity" ahead to win Best Picture -- way ahead -- 48 per cent compared to 15 per cent given to 12 Years a Slave, which is the frontrunner in many people‘s eyes. Zauzmer explains he weighs the Directors Guild Award selection heavily in his system, because historically, the Directors Guild has been the best predictor of best picture.
In the last 10 years, for example, the Director's Guild has picked nine of the last 10 Oscar winners.
5. Expect some sentimental voting
Even all the logic and all the number crunching in the world can’t predict the whims of the Academy. That’s because members often vote with their heart, not with cold reason.
Members doesn’t like to hand out the same award to the same winner twice, for example. Tom Hanks defied that rule, winning in 1994 for “Forrest Gump,” a year after snagging the same award for “Philadelphia.” But generally, if a nominee has won in his or her category before, the Academy will be looking to “spread the wealth” and let someone else be recognized.
The converse is also true: if someone has been nominated several times but has never won, they often eventually get their due -- even if it’s for work that wasn’t exactly their finest.
Paul Newman was nominated 10 times over 40 years but won only once, for "The Color of Money” -- a performance even he admitted was one of his least noteworthy. Henry Fonda was also passed over several times during his 40-year career and finally earned an Oscar for his role in “On Golden Pond,” just months before his death. Even revered director Martin Scorsese had to wait until 2007 to win his first and only statuette, for “The Departed.”
This year, composer Thomas Newman who had never won despite 11 previous nominations, is up “Saving Mr. Banks. Will this be the year Academy members give him his due and hand him a golden statuette?
6. Expect the unexpected
After you run the numbers, read the expert predictions, and check the odds, you might feel ready to fill in your Oscar pool ballot with your final picks. But it might be wise to go back and change a few. Because if there’s one thing Oscar often isn't, it’s predictable. So use your gut and side with that dark horse, or think less like a cold critic and more like a sentimental Academy member.
And then, when you accept that Oscar pool winner award, remember to thank the Academy and all the little people who helped you along the way. Like us.