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Can Math Predict The Oscars? A Debate.

“The Academy doesn’t want it to be a horse race, even though it is a horse race.”

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The Oscars present the perfect forecasting challenge. It’s a small ecosystem (only some 6,000 members of the Academy get to vote), there are all sorts of inscrutable variables (Hollywood relationships, behind-the-scenes politicking, “buzz”) and there’s a limited sample of previous data to work with.

FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey has been immersed — and we mean immersed — in the world of Oscars forecasting over the past few weeks. He discusses what he’s learned about this particular challenge, and offers his picks for this year’s winners. Plus, he guest-hosts the first ever What’s The Point mini-debate between Oscar forecaster Ben Zauzmer and The Wrap’s Jeff Sneider over whether you can predict the Oscars using math.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Below, a transcript of some highlights from the conversation.

Data and diversity

Jody Avirgan: This year in particular, the conversation around the Oscars is hitting upon the insularity of it, but in a lot of bigger ways. So obviously with regards to gender, and especially this year, race, we’re seeing that the Oscars are really white. Does data provide the promise of being able to crack that problem or understand the roots of that problem?

Walt Hickey: Data has actually been a little bit ahead of the curve on this. There’s a lot of research being done, in particular with the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California Annenberg. They actually categorize every single speaking character in the top 100 movies each year. They’ve been doing that for about six years now. And they’ve found pretty decisively that there are insufficient women on screen and insufficient minorities on screen, and that’s a problem. And it’s a pipeline problem. If you’re not getting the “Guy in Restaurant” role, then you’re not going to be able to get the role as a supporting character, you’re not going to be able to get the acting role, and then you’re not going to be able to get nominated for lead actor.

A WTP Debate: Opening statements

Ben Zauzmer: You can predict the Oscars with math. We’ve got all of this data from previous years — Guild Awards, other award shows, critic scores, which categories you’re nominated in — and we can use all of these things to figure out how important each of them are to predict each Oscar category. Then plug in this year’s data, and we’ve got ourselves a formula. It’s not perfect. Math is probably never going to go perfect, but, frankly, neither are qualitative predictors. I think at least math can definitely add something to the conversation each year.

Jeff Sneider: Obviously, there’s a lot of credibility behind math and I think that math is an important element to how I formulate my own predictions, but it’s not everything. I wrote Walt in the middle of the night — one of those ill-advised emails you immediately regret — and I was like, “There’s no way that math can predict the Oscars — there’s so many different elements and variables — sometimes it’s just instinctual. You can feel the current almost in the town.” That’s where I’m coming from. I’ll put my gut up against any formula, so to speak.


If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on iTunes, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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