Every year, the lead-up to the Oscars is rife with horse race terminology: there are front-runners, films that lag behind and, of course, last minute surges. As Hollywood bounces from award ceremony to award ceremony, from SAG to the Golden Globes to the Guild awards, the Oscar-predicting crowd gazes into its collective crystal ball and makes its pronouncements. Taking the cue from one of this year's Oscar contenders (that'd be "Moneyball"), we here at TOH decided to take a closer look at the data to see just how Oscar actually takes his cue from the other awards shows and, most importantly, the critics.
We looked at the Best Picture winners for the last two decades and asked whether or not those films were the critics' favorite for each year (using data courtesy of Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief of Rotten Tomatoes). We also asked which other awards the Best Picture film garnered throughout the awards season. The results, which can be seen below (along with a look at the ratings of this years Best Picture nominees and their previous awards), were often surprising.
Perhaps the most striking trend across the years is that the vast majority of Best Picture winners were in fact not the highest rated films according to Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus. Still, over the two decade period, critics and Academy voters seemed to agree more and more: in the 1990s, Best Picture winners were often only critics' third or fourth favorite films, while in the 2000s they started moving towards the top, with a clear trend in the last three years of critics and Oscar voters overlapping on best pic.
A few select factors explain why the critics' picks have often gone home without the big prize: "Up" squeezed past "The Hurt Locker" in the critics' eyes (98 percent to 97 percent), but did not make history as the first animated Best Picture winner; Scorsese's American noir thriller "The Departed" beat out British indie "The Queen." "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" both topped the critics' charts in their respective years, but the Academy shied away from giving Best Picture to a fantasy blockbuster until it did award the top prize to the finale, "The Return of the King" (which was beat out in critics' circles by "Lost in Translation"), as a nod to the entire series.
If the critics are an unlikely indicator of which film will take home Best Picture, however, the other awards are much more indicative. The Golden Globes show the weakest correlation, and haven't predicted the Oscar winner in six of the last five years (2004's "Crash" wasn't even nominated for a Globe). SAG's track record is more successful, but it is the DGA and PGA who are most predictive of the Oscar winner. DGA winners have gone on to take home the Oscar for the last four years; PGA winners have done so for the last three.
The biggest outlier, of coure, was 2004's Oscar race. Although critics loved "Good Night and Good Luck," it received no major awards, and Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" had the momentum going into the Oscar ceremony. "Crash" won a stunning upset for Best Picture, having won previously only with the Screen Actors Guild. For "Crash," it was probably an issue of gender and discomfort with the movie's gay themes: the overall Academy is dominated by men, whereas SAG (like the Academy actors' branch) is more balanced between men and women.