The Super Bowl of the arts is coming on Sunday night. And while Americans may not pay attention to the Academy Awards as they used to, they still pack a punch.
The films and those who make the films (actors, actresses, producers, directors, etc.) are artists of the highest caliber. The Oscar show, however, is largely about statistics. From who wins to who watches, statistics tell us the story of the Academy Awards.
So what are those statistics telling us about the Oscars this year, and what have they told us about the recent history of the Oscars? Let’s talk about it.
Who is likely to win in the Big Five categories
The Big Five categories are best actor, best actress, best director, best screenplay (original or adapted) and, of course, best picture. Three films have won all Big Five, and the last to do it was “Silence of the Lambs” in 1991. No film this year is eligible to pull it off.
Still, based on the implied probabilities of the betting markets, here are who will most likely win the Oscars in those categories.
Best actor: Will Smith is a clear favorite with north of an 80% chance of winning for his role in “King Richard.” Benedict Cumberbatch is really the only somewhat plausible nominee with a little bit more than a 10% chance of winning for his role in “The Power of the Dog.”
Best actress: Unlike in best actor, there are a number of plausible winners. Jessica Chastain has about a 60% chance of winning for her role in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” She’s followed by Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”) with just south of a 20% chance of winning, and Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughters”) and Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”) with about a 10% chance of taking home the Oscar.
Best director: It would be quite surprising if Jane Campion doesn’t win here for “The Power of the Dog.” She has about a 90% chance of taking home the Oscar. If anyone scores a major upset, it will be Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”) or Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”), though both have less than 5% chance.
Best original screenplay and best adapted screenplay: Honestly, I don’t know who is going to win in either of these categories. “Licorice Pizza” and “Belfast” each have about a 40% chance in the best original screenplay category (with “Don’t Look Up” at about 15%). “CODA” is somewhat ahead (a little north of 50% chance) of “The Power of the Dog” (a little south of 40%) in the best adapted screenplay race.
Best picture: This is a two film race. It’s very likely either “The Power of the Dog” (a little more than a 50% chance of winning) or “CODA” (a little less than a 40%) who will take home the big prize this year.
No, really, which movie is going to win best picture
One of the best ways to know who is going to win in each category is to look at which films and actors have done best in other award shows so far this year. Some award shows do a better job of predicting the Oscars than others.
I, myself, don’t build models to help us know who is going to win Oscars, but I do know somebody who does. Walter Hickey, who runs the Numlock News newsletter and award season supplement. So I asked him about the awards leading up to the Oscars and why this year’s best picture race is difficult to call.
Hickey noted to me that “it’s never been harder to get a good understanding of the Oscar race from precursors given [how fast the Academy has expanded its membership. Still,] the Producers Guild has the best track record among the precursors.”
The Producers Guild has called seven of the last 10 best picture winners, with three of those in the last five years. This favors “CODA,” which is actually a slight underdog in the betting markets. Hickey pointed out to me, though, that “The Power of the Dog” won a lot of other big time awards, such as BAFTA, the Critics Choice Awards, Directors Guild and the Golden Globe for best drama film.
Put another way, Hickey told me “it’s going to come down right to the finish.”
One other nugget from Hickey, Chastain did win the Screen Actors Guild Award for best actress (making her the favorite). The “usually ridiculously predictive” BAFTA awards, however, didn’t actually nominate any of the Oscar nominees in this category.
The Oscars are becoming more diverse, though not always in the way you may think
One of the big charges against the Oscars and other award shows is that the winners tend to be White and often men.
I asked Hickey about this, who showed me that the statistics backed this up. For instance, there had been only seven Black women nominated for best actress before 2009. Since that point, there have been an equal number of Black women (seven) nominated in the category.
This year there are no Black women nominated for best actress, but Smith, as mentioned, is a heavy favorite in the best actor category.
We also see that Campion is very likely to win best director. She’s just the eighth woman to be nominated in the category, and she’d be just the third to win it. Last year, Chloe Zhao was the second.
So it does seem the awards are becoming more diverse, though, to quote Hickey, it is “a matter of perspective” whether the film industry and the Oscars have rectified the lack of diversity enough.
One way in which the Academy is clearly trying to make amends for its past is by opening up its membership. Hickey told me “by my reckoning, more than half of the current Academy has been admitted since 2011, and the organization will likely settle in at around 10,000 members at some point in the next several years, up from a steady state of around 6,000 members.”
Much of this growth has been internationally. Per Hickey, “of the 819 individuals invited to join in 2020, the Academy boasted 49% were international members from some 68 countries that aren’t America.” This means while we’re seeing more “African Americans… Asian Americans [and Hispanic Americans]”, we’re really seeing more “Africans, Asian[s]… [and Central] and South Americans.
There probably aren’t going to be that many people watching
In pictures: The 2021 Academy Awards
At the top, I said that not as many people watch the Oscars as they used to. About 10 million people tuned into last year’s show. This is frankly shocking to anyone who has any memories of the Oscars being one of those events that the whole family watched.
As recently as 2014, over 40 million people watched the Oscars. That had trended downward to 30 million for the show in 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic seemed to accelerate the decline further.
Now, to be clear, television shows in general have seen their viewership drop. The top-rated non-sports series had its viewership dip by 10 million from 2014 to last season, though clearly the Oscars plummeting ratings are something more unique.
The question is will there be a rebound with life mostly returning to normal after the pandemic? We’ve already seen sports have a rebound after the pandemic, and my examination of some of the polling suggests viewership might be closer to 20 million.
Much of that 20 million will probably be Democrats. They have long been twice as likely to watch the Oscars as Republicans.
I’m not sure ABC (the network airing the Oscars) is worrying too much about viewership. The network is getting around $2 million per 30-second advertisement, which is better than last year.
We’ll have to see if those advertisers get their money’s worth.