Oscar Predictions: Man vs. Machine

Predicting the Oscars using data and machine learning has in recent years become a tractable and relatively trivial endeavor, especially because the results of earlier awards ceremonies — held by the DGA, PGA, WGA, SAG, BAFTA, and HFPA — often track closely with specific category winners at the Academy Awards. Other variables, such as an individual’s previous number of nominations and wins, can help a model better identify prospective winners. Additional information about the intensity and duration of particular Oscar campaigns also proves useful.

At Pilot, we leverage big data to solve previously impossible problems in entertainment analytics on a daily basis. However, with this year’s Oscars, our team has decided to mix up how we approach our predictions. Instead of relying on our suite of sophisticated models, we’ve decided to go old-school: we’ve asked our resident film academic, Yoobin Ji, to publish his personal predictions. Below are his projected Oscar winners for 14 major categories.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

Courtesy A24

If he wins, Mahershala Ali will be the first Muslim to ever receive an Academy Award. This would be an especially timely victory in the context of President Trump’s recent Muslim ban, and it would be an excellent way for the Academy to make a statement on its commitment to diversity.

Independent of politics, Ali’s performance was already one of the strongest in this category. One other important thing to consider is that the Academy loves to spread out awards, and in the highly likely situation that La La Land takes Best Picture, this will be a way for them to recognize Moonlight.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Viola Davis (Fences)

Courtesy Paramount

This category is the closest to a lock, highlighted by the fact that Viola Davis decided to campaign for Best Actress in a Supporting Role when she could have easily competed in the crowded field for Best Actress in a Leading Role. There is also history here, as Davis’ first Oscar nomination was for her film breakthrough role in the Pulitzer-winning play adaptation of Doubt (2008). It’s very probable that this will be the only award given to Fences.

Best Foreign-Language Film: The Salesman

Courtesy Amazon, Cohen Media Group

Asghar Farhadi’s film is an easy pick in response to the current political climate. Farhadi, along with some other attendees, decided to boycott the Academy Awards ceremony because of the Trump travel ban, and awarding him a second Oscar will be a striking gesture against the current presidential administration.

Best Animated Feature Film: Zootopia

Courtesy Disney

Despite the extremely strong field, Disney’s Zootopia is almost guaranteed to win this year. The box office mega-hit boasts a feel-good message of tolerance and unity and has the widest appeal among Academy voters relative to the other nominees.

Best Film Editing: John Gilbert (Hacksaw Ridge)

Courtesy Summit

No longer persona non grata in Hollywood, Mel Gibson has successfully revitalized his career, with Hacksaw Ridge earning a whopping 6 nominations. Although the film will still be shut out of the top categories, the Academy will still recognize Hacksaw Ridge in technical categories such as this one. If the average age of the Academy were even higher, it might be the case that Hacksaw Ridge would sweep the awards.

Best Cinematography: Linus Sandgren (La La Land)

Courtesy Lionsgate

It’s unlikely that Martin Scorsese’s Silence will win its lone nomination here, or that Arrival will make a surprise upset. La La Land looks to easily win this category.

Best Original Score: Justin Hurwitz (La La Land)

Courtesy Lionsgate

It would be an incredible upset for La La Land, the first original musical in recent memory to be nominated for Best Picture, to lose this category, or that of Best Original Song. Justin Hurwitz will take home this award.

Best Original Song: “City of Stars” by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul (La La Land)

Courtesy HFPA

Despite two nominations for La La Land, “City of Stars” is the centerpiece of the entire film, with its haunting leitmotifs interspersed throughout the movie. Instead of a split vote, expect support for La La Land to consolidate behind “City of Stars.” Despite Hollywood’s love for Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s more probable that La La Land will take home the trophy.

Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By the Sea)

Courtesy Amazon

Right after La La Land and Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea is the most celebrated film of 2016 due to its exemplary strengths in Lonergan’s naturalistic dialogue and Casey Affleck’s melancholic performances. The Academy will surely recognize both of these feats.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight)

Courtesy A24

Moonlight will win easily here. Arrival will likely be ignored due to the Academy’s historic phobia of science fiction. The posthumous recognition of August Wilson is even less likely, as it would go against one of the main unspoken functions of the Oscars, which is to invest in marketable stars for future films.

Best Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Courtesy Lionsgate

Achievement in directing has often been associated with creating the biggest spectacle. Here, Damien Chazelle is an obvious pick, and he could become the youngest ever recipient of the award. He also has the brightest future, coming off the popularity and success of Whiplash (2014).

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea)

Courtesy Amazon

A leading actor award is the biggest gift the Academy can bestow upon a budding star. Despite an incredible performance from Denzel Washington, it seems more probable that the award will go to Casey Affleck, solidifying his status as an A-list actor.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Courtesy Lionsgate

Despite the complexity of Isabelle Huppert’s role in Elle, the film will be difficult for the Academy to embrace due to its dark subject matter. Jackie, from Chilean arthouse director Pablo Larraín, is also not the type of film to be recognized, despite a standout performance from Oscar-winner Natalie Portman. And it looks like the perennially nominated Meryl Streep will have to wait a little longer before winning a fourth Oscar. Emma Stone is a strong favorite, and this award will acknowledge her superb work in La La Land.

Best Picture: Moonlight

Courtesy A24

Most industry publications are convinced that La La Land will win, for very good reasons. It is crowd-pleasing, marketable, and self-congratulatory in its praise of the magic of cinema. Still, in my optimism, I hope the Academy recognizes the subtle beauty of Moonlight over the flashy musical. From its classical score to its universal themes about the separation and unification of two lovers (albeit neither straight nor white), Moonlight will appeal to the Academy in many ways despite its unconventional background.

Not to mention the #OscarsTooWhite controversy of the last two years, picking La La Land as a nostalgic tribute to the Golden Age of Cinema would not be a particularly progressive decision for this awards ceremony, especially as it loses viewers every year and continues to be criticized for being out of touch with the current generation. Moonlight will be crowned the apex of an incredibly diverse and exciting year in American cinema.

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