A Computer Predicts Which Movie Will Win Best Picture

In keeping with the unpredictable nature of Oscars 2019, we have less of an idea than usual as to who’s going to take home the best picture trophy.

From this year’s batch of eight nominees, you may draw just as many theorized big winners. While a certain contingent of cinephile believes in the might of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, awards season traditionalists seem split between Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. On the other hand, a quiet good will for BlacKkKlansman could conceivably earn it top honor, likewise a lasting sentimentality for early favorite A Star Is Born. And of course, there’s the fighting chance of Black Panther.

All that is to say that we Oscar-ogling humans can’t make up our minds on the matter. So, as we often do, we’ve turned to robots to figure it out for us.

The algorithm

Time journalists Chris Wilson and Christopher T. Franck enlisted the wisdom of a computer program to determine which of the abovementioned candidates (plus The Favourite, which I love but am not exactly pulling for to clinch, and Vice) is most likely to take home Best Picture on February 24. The program compiled data about the past seven decades’ worth of Best Picture winners, evidently prioritizing factors like a given film’s nomination in the Oscar categories of Best Director and Best Editing and its earning of the Directors Guild of America’s premier trophy. (Historically, Best Picture winners have tended to claim these honors as well.)

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Worth mentioning is the fact that the program didn’t evaluate this year’s batch of nominees as a group competing among each other. Instead, it measured each film’s individual likelihood of snagging the trophy based on characteristics like those mentioned above. This excises consideration of human-specific judgments inherent to the voting process. For instance, the rejection of a film precisely because it shares certain characteristics with a competing film that the same voter has already chosen to favor. In other words, robots clearly don’t get us.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at the program’s assessments of this year’s candidates, especially given Wilson and Franck’s reports that it guessed, in trial, the past 70 years of Best Picture winners with impressive accuracy. (We’re allowing the benefit of the doubt that the program hasn’t simply been watching the Oscars all these years.) What makes it especially interesting is how big a lead the program’s top choice has over its runners up.

The predictions

Of the eight films in the running, Roma reigns supreme as not only the program’s number one bet, but its number one bet by a longshot. Cuarón’s feature, which does harbor a Best Director nod and a Director’s Guild of America trophy, was called 45.5% likely to win Best Picture; meanwhile, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, and Vice all tied for a distant second with an estimated 11.2% chance.

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More dismal yet are the calculated odds of industry faves Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, each of which was stamped with a meager 1.7%. But that’s not even the bottom of the barrel, as Black Panther and A Star Is Born—box office giants though they might be—only scored a .2% chance of victory.

While it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Roma to walk away with Best Picture—nor is it all too far-fetched to suspect that Black Panther won’t (I’m not saying I’m happy about it!)—these measurements should be taken with a grain of salt. For it’s not only against one another that the candidates are being considered, but against 2018’s entire cinematic output—hell, against 2018 altogether. If the computer program at hand can’t factor in how the sociopolitical and artistic climate influence its top choices (both for better and worse), then it is not painting a complete picture.

Of course, the inclusion of this element doesn’t exactly leave us with a clearer prediction. Will it be a tight clutch of conservatism against a wave of change that decides our big winner, or the prevalence of that change itself through never ending pushback? All this factored in, it stands to reason that these increasingly unpredictable times have given us an especially unpredictable Oscars.

Images: 20th Century Fox, Disney/Marvel, Netflix

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