What to watch out for in Oscar nominations to predict Best Picture winner

The Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday morning, February 8, so what will they tell us about the race for Best Picture? The top category has defied expectations in recent years since the academy instituted its preferential ballot for the award and the organization has greatly expanded and diversified its membership. But here are some potentially telling clues to watch for.

Which films are nominated for Best Director?

This category has historically been the most closely correlated with Best Picture, the same way we associate an orchestra with its conductor or a ship with its captain: it’s a collaborative effort, but the director is often the central authority driving and guiding it. So when you have 10 Best Picture nominees, you’ll usually find the winner among the five films nominated for directing. This is no longer a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good place to start. And if it’s a big, elaborate production, Best Director is really a can’t-miss category; a “Green Book” could afford to miss here, but an “Inception” or “The Martian” couldn’t.

Which films are nominated for Best Film Editing?

This is arguably more important even than which films are nominated for Best Director. Because in the last 40 years three movies have won Best Picture without a directing nom (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Argo,” “Green Book”) compared to just one that won Best Picture without an editing nom (“Birdman”). So historically speaking, whichever Best Picture nominees are also represented here are likeliest to be the films duking it out for the win at the end of the night.

Which films are nominated for writing?

The academy’s writers branch is yet more important for Best Picture success than the editors. Only one film since 1949 has won Best Picture without a writing nom: “Titanic” (1997). So it’s basically been impossible for a movie to achieve this unless it’s a once-in-a-generation pop cultural landmark. In fact, even if you’re the front-runner to win for directing, you’re still out of luck without that writing nom. Consider “Gravity” (2013) and “The Revenant” (2015). Both were likely among the top two or three for Best Picture when all was said and done (our odds were even predicting “The Revenant” would win), and both did win Best Director. But neither was nominated for writing and they both lost Best Picture to films that were: “12 Years a Slave” and “Spotlight,” respectively.

This correlation is probably due in large part to the fact that there are two writing categories (Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay), more or less doubling a film’s chances for a nomination. So if you can’t get into one of those races for something as foundational to a film as its script, the odds are against you being named the best film of the year.

Which film over-performed relative to expectations?

“Relative to expectations” is the key here. For instance, if a technically audacious film like “Dune” gets nine nominations, that would probably be considered a disappointment given its potential to sweep the craft categories. But if a smaller-scale film like “Licorice Pizza” or “King Richard” gets nine nominations, that would be a huge windfall. And it’s not just the number of nominations that matters. Going just by the numbers can lead you far astray (“The Shape of Water” won with a leading 13 nominations, “Green Book” won with just five). It’s the specific categories you should pay attention to.

That means, if a movie receives nominations in races where you might not have expected it to factor in, or shows up everywhere it seemed like it was on the bubble, that could be a clue to its strength overall. Consider “Argo” getting into both sound categories, “Spotlight” scoring acting noms for both Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (they’d been hit-and-miss at earlier events), or “Parasite” picking up a nom for its production design (uncommon for a contemporary film).

Stay humble.

This is less about what to look out for in the nominations themselves, and more about what to look out for in yourself when predicting them. All of the above factors can point in the right direction, but the preferential ballot for Best Picture in the modern era is still only about a decade old, which is a pretty small sample size to draw any absolute conclusions from. And the academy’s expansion of their membership means we’re dealing with a slightly different voting body every year.

Sometimes they go for something unusually offbeat or progressive (“Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Parasite”). Other times they’re stubbornly traditional (“The King’s Speech,” “Green Book”). And occasionally the films that meet all of the above criteria end up falling by the wayside (“American Hustle,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). The Oscars defy one historical trend or another just about every year now, which is as it should be since they’re evaluating subjective art and, hopefully, not trying to solve a math problem.

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