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

The 2023 Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday morning, January 24, so what will they tell us about the Best Picture race? The top category has defied expectations and bucked historical trends multiple times in recent years since the academy instituted a preferential ballot for the top category and the organization has expanded its membership. But here are some potentially telling clues to watch for.

Which films are nominated for Best Director?

Best Director used to be the most closely correlated with Best Picture, the same way we associate an orchestra with its conductor (“TAR,” I’m looking at you) or a ship with its captain: all films are team efforts, but the director is often the central authority. So when there are 10 Best Picture nominees, you’ll usually find the winner among the five films nominated for directing. In recent years, though, this rule has been repeatedly broken. Over the last decade, “Argo” (2012), “Green Book” (2018), and “CODA” (2021) claimed Best Picture without their directors being recognized. So make sure this isn’t the only tea leaf you’re paying attention to.

Which films are nominated for Best Film Editing?

Being recognized in this category is even more important than being nominated for Best Director. In the last 40 years four movies have won Best Picture without a directing nom (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Argo,” “Green Book,” “CODA”) compared to just two that won Best Picture without an editing nom (“Birdman,” “CODA”). 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. But since “CODA” managed to win without directing or editing bids just last year, neither trend is a foolproof measure of an Oscar contender anymore.

Which films are nominated for writing?

These days the screenplay races are the most important indicator of Best Picture success. Only one film since 1949 has won Best Picture without a writing nomination: “Titanic” (1997). So it took a once-in-a-generation pop cultural landmark to defy the academy’s writers branch. 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 won 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. And last year “CODA” was nominated for (and won) Best Adapted Screenplay, so even that anomalous film wasn’t an exception to this rule.

The correlation between writing  and Best Picture is probably due to the fact that there are two scripting 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 as a film’s script, the odds are greatly stacked against you being named the best film of the year.

Which film over-performed or under-performed relative to expectations?

“Relative to expectations” is the key phrase here. For instance, if “Everything Everywhere All at Once” got, say, seven nominations, that would be considered a disappointment given how well it has performed at earlier events (it received 14 Critics Choice noms and 10 BAFTA noms). But if a film like “TAR” got seven nominations, that would be a soaring success.

And it’s not just how many nominations that matters. Going just by the numbers can be misleading (“The Shape of Water” won with 13 nominations, “Green Book” won with just five). But if a movie is recognized in categories that seemed unlikely, or shows up everywhere it was on the bubble, that could be a sign of its strength overall. Consider “Argo” getting into both sound categories, “Spotlight” receiving acting noms for both Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (they’d been hit-and-miss at earlier events), and “Parasite” scoring a nom for its production design (uncommon for a contemporary film).

Stay humble.

One word: “CODA.” (That’s technically one acronym, but you know what I mean.)

The above factors can lead you 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 firm conclusions from. And the academy’s diversification of their membership means we’re dealing with a slightly different organization every single year.

Sometimes voters go for something unusual or progressive (“Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Parasite”). Other times they prefer something that’s downright old-school (“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; “CODA” winning with nominations only for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur), and Best Adapted Screenplay means almost all of the above could go out the window at any time. That’s as it should be since they’re evaluating art and, hopefully, not trying to solve a math problem.

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