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The Race For Best Picture Is Among The Closest In Oscar History

The race for the Oscar for best picture feels very close. “Birdman” and “Boyhood” are the favorites, and our model shows “Birdman” in the lead. But there’s still a lot of talk in favor of Richard Linklater’s film. Complicating this is that Linklater is favored in the director’s category. Splits aren’t rare, but they do make it less easy to call a decisive leader in the best picture race. So it seems like a tight contest, but how tight is it really?

The difference between the leader in our model’s estimation and the runner-up is 0.9 points.

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There have been eight races in the past 25 years in which the difference between the top two scoring films was about a point or less. Here they are:

YEAR MODEL LEADER SCORE RUNNER-UP SCORE DIFF. MODEL LEADER WON?
1989 Born on the Fourth of July 1.5 Driving Miss Daisy 1.4 0.1
1992 Unforgiven 1.5 The Crying Game 1.4 0.2
2013 12 Years a Slave 2.6 Gravity 2.4 0.2
2004 The Aviator 2.4 Sideways 1.8 0.6
1995 Apollo 13 2.8 Sense and Sensibility 2.0 0.8
2006 The Departed 2.9 Little Miss Sunshine 1.9 1.0
2000 Gladiator 2.7 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 1.7 1.0
2010 The King’s Speech 3.2 The Social Network 2.2 1.0

(Numbers are rounded, so they may not add up perfectly.)

When the difference between the model’s perceived leader and runner-up is about a point or less, we get it right about 63 percent of the time. That’s not great! We’re clearly drawing from a small sample size, but it’s the best we have.

There’s another interesting pattern we’re seeing, however. In two of the years (2004, 1995) in which the model got it wrong, the winner (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Braveheart”) wasn’t even in the top two; those films were big upsets. This year, there’s been a push, especially from the “American Sniper” crowd, to start buying into the possibility of that film to upset. It’s probably not going to. But because the competition is so tight, people pulling for a dark horse in general may see a little hope — assuming the Academy is split on “Boyhood” and “Birdman.”

So, yeah, this is a pretty close race. It’s just barely out of the top fifth of tight races in the past 25 years. But there’s no reason for “Boyhood” fans to lose hope. The betting markets still have the film doing well.

And it’s always nice to have a competition. Sometimes a film blows its competition out of the water. For example, here were the five most dominant best picture nominees in the past 25 years:

YEAR MODEL LEADER SCORE RUNNER-UP SCORE DIFF. MODEL LEADER WON?
2008 Slumdog Millionaire 4.4 Milk 0.9 3.5
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 4.2 Mystic River 0.9 3.4
2012 Argo 4.3 Zero Dark Thirty 1.0 3.3
1999 American Beauty 4.0 The Insider 0.8 3.2
2007 No Country for Old Men 3.8 There Will Be Blood 0.8 3.0

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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