Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans is the early favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Or maybe it is Babylon. Or Banshees of Inisherinor Everything and everywhere at onceor Taror Top Gun: Maverick. For now, it depends on which expert you ask.
We’re just days away from what some see as the true start of Oscar season, when the critics’ groups are starting to chime in. And with those lists of nominees comes another “first favorite” — perhaps one of the films listed above. But how much should we believe that the first favorite really is and favorite?
To answer this question, I’ve recorded winners from eight major critic groups going back to at least 1990, giving us 32 years of data to work with. It turns out that these eight—the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, and critics circles in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City, and London—have a dirty record.
Of the 32 Best Picture winners in that span, only 11 were “early favorites,” which I define as a film that won multiple of these eight awards: The Silence of the Lambs, Unapologetic, Schindler’s List, american beauty, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, No Country for Old Men, Hurt Locker, Artist, 12 years a slave, Parasite and Nomadland. The total rises to 13 if we include draws: Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E won three apiece as well as forever linked Moonlight and La La Land.
Complicating matters is that the early favorite is often far from unanimous. Only Schindler’s List and Social network swept all eight of these critic groups and the latter still lost King’s Speech a few months later. Over three years – 1996, 2000 and 2017 – the eight first prizes were shared between six different films. Yet neither of them won an Oscar because The English Patient, Gladiator and The shape of water were all excluded from these critic groups.
And they’re not the only movies that were 0-for-8 at the start but gained late momentum to win Oscars: Braveheart, Shakespeare in love, A beautiful mind, Chicago, Argo and CODA he also had to endure eight consecutive setbacks from December contests to finally triumph.
On the other hand, three movies — Mulholland Drive, About Schmidt and United 93rd — were all considered early favorites under that methodology but didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination, an unfortunate occurrence that’s less likely now that the Academy has doubled the size of its top category.
There seems to be some correlation between how well a film does among these critical honors and its eventual fate at the Oscars, even if it’s just a spot shot. Looking at the last two decades, the chart at left shows that while many Best Picture winners win critical acclaim during the campaign, there remain a handful of films that manage to carve their own path to the Academy’s top prize.
These days, we have even more data to point to early favorites, as the number of December awards has grown substantially since 1990, with critic groups forming in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Dallas, among others. But at least from this data set, the mid-December favorite has a little more than a 1-in-3 chance of eventually hoisting the final statue, giving the Oscar race plenty of time to offer twists and turns throughout January, February and March. .
Authored by Ben Zauzmer Oscarmetrics: The math behind Hollywood’s biggest night.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To subscribe, click here.