Numlock Awards: 2021 End of season Mailbag and wrap-up

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter and Michael.

Thanks to everyone for your questions! Let’s dive in.

I did read in a lot of the predictions that Nomadland was the favorite to win Best Picture but a lot of people said that if there was an upset then it would be Minari. Why do you think Minari was the upset pick if it didn’t win any precursor awards? — Cameron Smith

Michael: Here was my thinking on Minari as spoiler.

First, the film was playing well with the actors, a large branch of the Academy (though its vote power is shrinking, as Walter has laid out). Still, Yuh-jung Youn was consistently winning awards at ceremonies like SAG and BAFTA, and Steven Yeun racked up his fair share nominations. The cast also got a coveted ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards, so there was clearly a lot of support for the actors.

Second, Lee Isaac Chung picked up a lot of Best Director nominations — not just at the Oscars, but also at the BAFTAs, the Critics’ Choice Awards, DGA, and plenty of local critics. In general, films that win Best Picture also land a director nomination, so Minari also checked off that box.

Finally, the movie seemed to be peaking at the right time — Yuh-jung Youn’s acceptance speeches would go viral, young co-star Alan Kim was showing up on talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live, and there were few, if any, Minari detractors. While the controversy over the way Amazon is depicted in Nomadland clearly did not hurt the movie much with Oscar voters, I thought that Minari could be an upset given its wide appeal and the funky way Best Picture math works.

Is there any relationship between doing well at the Oscars and when a movie has a theatrical release? Do more recent movies get more awards? Is there a sweet spot so voters watch it, absorb it, and thus vote for it? — T.J. Breshears

Michael: There are a lot of theories as to when you should release your movie for maximum awards potential. The New York Times has a good rundown of how the team behind The Father thought about releasing the film. Originally planned for a November release, The Father then shifted to late February (though Academy voters received access back in November). The thinking was: let high-profile movies like Sound of Metal and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom get a lot of attention early on but then get lost in the shuffle on Amazon and Netflix, which have many other offerings. All the while, The Father would be slowly building buzz and exclusively in theaters and on premium VOD. Clearly, it worked.

However, if there were a sweet spot, every movie would be released then. The two buckets tend to be: 1) premiere at some film festivals, build some buzz, and make sure you leave enough time for people to start talking about your tiny indie by releasing in the summer or early fall (think The Hurt Locker or Moonlight); 2) premiere at some film festivals, build some buzz, but let the anticipation slowly mount by holding off on release until Thanksgiving/December, allowing you to peak at the right time (think The Shape of Water or The King’s Speech).

The downside to option one is that your movie may eventually be forgotten — the end of the year is so jam-packed with Oscar movies, it can be hard to think all the way back to early fall, let alone summer movies. The downside to option two is that your movie may not be able to break through in any meaningful sense because the momentum and conversation have already been taken up by other competitors.

So you really do just have to game out, movie by movie, what works best. And that’s why they have awards consultants, who can earn as much as $50,000 for a Best Picture win. (You can read more about what an awards consultant does here, but it’s everything from courting bloggers to sending out screeners to crafting soundbites you hear endlessly repeated.)

Could you do an article on who constitutes the BAFTA membership and how it overlaps with AMPAS? — Jim Poon

Walter: Good question! The fun fact is we don’t know the actual membership of AMPAS. I have the list of invitations for AMPAS going back like a decade, but there’s never any promise the person actually accepted the invitation and properly joined. That still also leaves out like several thousand people who were in the Academy prior to the 2010s.

That said, the good people at BAFTA do furnish a list of their membership. It’s a little onerous to do membership analysis to find out different things about the demographics of a group, but I have done stuff like it before and am down to look into it.

Is BAFTA a good predictor of the Oscars or rather a strong influencer?  In other words, are there some voters who, seeing that Hopkins and McDormand won a BAFTA, but who haven't made up their mind yet, go and watch (or re-watch) their movies and then decide to vote for them? — Jim Poon

Walter: This is a good question. I’m a believer in predictor over influence. It doesn’t make sense to me that a voter would think “BAFTA liked this so I should vote for it.” I just don’t think people vote like that.

I think the influence of the BAFTAs awards proper is, at most, as a platform for speeches. However, that brings me to my second point, which is that like two million people watched the BAFTAs and while obviously I’m skeptical of television ratings as a measure of genuine impact for a lot of reasons, that doesn’t strike me as moving a lot of votes around.

To me, it makes sense if you look at the precursors like they’re polls. A poll takes a chunk of an electorate, asks them how they think about something, then publishes that information, and as a result we can get a sense of the prevailing attitudes in a contest we actually care about. The BAFTAs take the British chunk of the electorate, SAG takes the acting chunk, the PGA takes in the opinions of the suits. They’re reflections of the state of a race and possibly a proxy for the success of an Oscar campaign. If BAFTA tuned into The Father, it’s an indication that other voters are probably too. It’s why we also value nominations, because simply being in the conversation is an indication that someone did rather well in the poll in question.

How do you predict BAFTA?  Does it become like trying to predict the winner of a big city mayoral race. The Democrat is going to win. How to predict the primary though? — Shawn Nelson

Walter: I’m fine not being able to predict the BAFTA. I think a lot of forecasting is admitting what you really don’t think is possible to forecast — like how I don’t mess with writing or documentary awards, or anything much downballot — and the precursor prediction game is not one I really need to or know how to be a part of.

Where do you go from here in trying to predict best picture? — Irish Twilight

Walter: I’m happy with the progress! Again, I suspect that the past several years have been transitional for the Academy; I simply don’t think they’re going to add 700 people a year indefinitely. I think that the number of people admitted in the last 5 years is a whole lot more than the number of people admitted in the next 5.

As a result, as the volatility of the AMPAS membership goes down, I expect we’ll get progressively better at predicting the winner until we hit sort of a maximum. It’s the reason I explicitly designed the model to value recent years far more than more historical years, to stay hot on the heels of the changing Academy. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’re much closer than we were a few years ago. It’s the first year in a minute where I felt like I was probably doubting our instruments too much, but then again it was a weird, weird year.

That may change if the composition of the precursors changes, if for instance the DGA embarks on a membership expansion, but yeah I feel good about where we are on Best Picture, or at least where we’re heading.

Thanks as always for coming along for the ride! See you in a few months, and go enjoy some movies this year when you can.

Numlock Awards: Damn It Feels Good To Be A BAFTA

Live from Wales, it's Anthony Hopkins.

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Well, that was something.

Very very quick one today. First things first: last year the wrap-up mailbag was super fun! We’re doing a mailbag again this year and would love to answer your questions. Just reply to this email or shoot us a message at awards@numlock.news and we’ll tackle it.

Second, wanted to follow up on a thing I alluded to in the last pre-Oscars email that, given how the night turned out (5 out of 6, nailed a hard Best Actress category, solid year!), turned out to be worth diving into. Here’s what I wrote:

A topic I didn’t really get to explore this year is BAFTA and how they’ve been getting very good lately in the acting categories. The reason is I don’t really have evidence for one of the many theories I have as to why: Is it that BAFTA is getting less British-focused? Is it that the Academy, with a global expansion, is looking more BAFTA-like? Is it just a string of good luck? If McDormand (or Hopkins, for that matter) pulls it off, I’ll be all over this next year.

Well, both McDormand and Hopkins did indeed pull it off! The Ho-mentum was real. My personal doubt of my own instruments was unfounded, and damn the BAFTAs are getting good at this.

Earlier this year I wrote a post about how the different precursor awards were trending in reliability. The entire point of the model I run is that precursor awards should be assigned a weight given how well they do, and that weight should evolve rapidly given the rapid evolution of the Academy as a whole. In that post, I looked at it category by category.

To finish out this season, I updated the numbers for this season, and now I want to show you it not by category but rather by precursor for the biggest acting prizes. What this shows is the average predictability of each precursor award’s ability to forecast the Oscars, with recent performance weighted higher per the model:

This, to me, is really really cool. Look at how good the BAFTAs are at calling the individual awards! Over the course of a decade, the BAFTA has gotten better and better at predicting the Oscar winner in every single individual category by double-digit margins. The exception is in Best Picture, which has seen its predictability in general freefall since the early 2010s.

SAG is also not too shabby; yes, they had a bit of a down year in Best Actor and Best Actress, but have held steady overall so don’t lose faith in them. In Best Picture, they too remain a coin flip, but at least nothing’s really changed. There was a period of time in the mid-2010s where it was a serious consideration that SAG may be getting better at predicting Best Picture; this was a bit of illusory, small-sample size data.

Like I mentioned pre-Oscars, one reason I didn’t write about the BAFTAs before the Oscars was I hadn’t yet decided on a working theory as to why they’re getting better. For me the jury is still out, but I’m open to ideas. As for why Best Picture is getting worse, well, I think things are working exactly as the Academy wants them to.

I have more on all this, but let’s save it for the mailbag! Reply to this email or email awards@numlock.news to get in touch.

If you enjoyed this newsletter this year, tell some folks you like it.

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Numlock Awards: The Oscars 2021 Final Forecast

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. We’re doing another post-Oscar mailbag, send questions to awards@numlock.news! Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Enjoy the show tonight everybody!

Best Supporting Actor

Start with an easy one here, Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) has scooped up each of the major precursor prizes at SAG, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice and the Golden Globes. With only four precursor prizes, the supporting actor categories tend to either coalesce quickly around a single winner, or not at all; in this weird little deferred and abridged and remote season, that happened in short order on this one.

Best Supporting Actress

Yuh-jung Youn (Minari) never once left first place according to the model through the entirety of this season, having racked up a surfeit of recognition from local critics.

Still, for a while this category was unsettled, with Jodie Foster (The Mauritanian) winning a Golden Globe but not a subsequent Oscar nomination, and Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) winning at the Critics’ Choice. It wasn’t until back-to-back wins at SAG and BAFTA that Youn came into a striking lead, and right now it’d be a surprise if she loses.

Best Director

In baseball, it’s considered a faux pas to talk about a pitcher who appears to be in the process of throwing a no-hitter. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to bring that information up at this time, blowing my once-per-season sports metaphor on the very last day of the season!

Anyway, here’s a chart.

Best Actor

This looks way closer than I believe it truly is.

Hopkins (The Father) won at BAFTA, which as I mentioned last week I think is more a function of home-field advantage than an indication he’s breaking what seemed to be unstoppable momentum behind the posthumous campaign for Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).

Is this just an esteemed U.K. actor getting recognition from his peers in a season belonging to someone else, or genuine Anthony Ho-mentum? Is Ho-mentum a cursed word that I should have never come up with? Tonight, we find out.

Best Actress

This is the category to watch this year. It’s pretty much a toss-up. Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and McDormand (Nomadland) are the likeliest winners, but in a category like this, that means very little. This is a category selected by a plurality of the votes, first-past-the-post, and the initial picture is so muddy that it really could be anyone’s to win.

The long and short of it is that both BAFTA and SAG are fabulous predictors of this category, and this year they’re going head to head. You may recall that the model is explicitly designed to reward recent precursor performance over older performances, so bigger picture I’m really excited about which of SAG or BAFTA (if either!) ends up being right.

A topic I didn’t really get to explore this year is BAFTA and how they’ve been getting very good lately in the acting categories. The reason is I don’t really have evidence for one of the many theories I have as to why: Is it that BAFTA is getting less British-focused? Is it that the Academy, with a global expansion, is looking more BAFTA-like? Is it just a string of good luck? If McDormand (or Hopkins, for that matter) pulls it off, I’ll be all over this next year.

The model says McDormand. Michael yesterday said Davis. I personally think he’s right on this one and the BAFTAs will take a hit in the rating system. Still, this category will end up being a close one, and all sorts of exciting things can happen when there’s no leader in Best Actress so buckle up.

Best Picture

Oh sweet, it’s the hard one.

You should check out my conversation with FairVote’s Rob Richie last week. I continue to think that assessing precursor prizes remains one of the most effective long-term ways to discern the general possibilities of Oscar outcomes. That said, the past couple years have really been wild in terms of how they ended up going, and I’m generally just the type who wants to understand black box systems rather than ride or die on a single model.

In my talk with Richie, we got at just why the Best Picture category has been so lousy with volatility. My thoughts about what’s been going on with the category come down to two principles:

  • All nominees have a floor of support (that is, the number of die-hards who rank it first, ride-or-die for Minari, the #7hive, The No-letariat, the Mankees, if you have a Twitter account you know the vibe I’m talking about)

  • All nominees also have a ceiling of support. These are, overall, the broad number of people who would be, in general, cool with the film as Best Picture.

Under a first-past-the-post system, which is how a lot of precursors are calculated, a high floor can punch your ticket: if you’ve got 35 percent of the vote every time, in a five-candidate race each time that’s probably good enough for a win.

What we measure when we look at precursors is, I think, the floor. That chart is an intuitive measure of how high the floor is for the movies up for an Oscar.

Oftentimes, a solid floor of support is enough to get you an Oscar, but not always.

  • If a movie is loved by a passionate fan base, but loathed by a lot of people — let’s say a movie like Riddler or Two-Face or Penguin or I know I’m forgetting one but its name momentarily escapes me — it’s got a high floor, but a low ceiling. This kind of movie does bad under ranked-choice voting, it lasts a little longer than most but can’t break the 50 percent threshold to seal the deal.

  • If a movie is very niche loved but is generally broadly liked, like a Story about a Marriage, it’s got a low floor and a high ceiling. This kind of movie also does bad under ranked-choice voting, it goes down in an early round and its votes get spread to other movies.

In short, one reason we have been seeing a lot of weirdness in Best Picture is that it’s incredibly difficult to suss out the ceiling of support for these movies. In my view, an ideal model would use the floor calculations in that chart above to determine which films likely make it to the final three, and then a reckoning of the ceiling of each to discern a winner. We don’t have a good way to measure that last bit, so I don’t have that model for you.

It is, however, one reason why every year I like to shout-out my friend James England’s model. He applies some principles of head-to-head matchups from his work analyzing college football, and invites people to rate the films against one another. His record isn’t perfect either, but I really like its track record in Best Picture during upset years. This year, his analysis of the votes has Minari winning out. If Nomadland were to miss, I think James (and Michael, for that matter) would end up being right: Minari has a high ceiling of support. Whether Nomadland has a high enough ceiling to capitalize on its demonstrably high floor is something we’ll learn tonight.

One last thing is calculating how much of a “favorite” a movie really is. Every year I do a beta model to try to assign a genuine probability to the scores you see up top. What this essentially comes does to is I use those scores to very, very slightly weight the randomized preferences of 9,400 people in the Academy in a python script simulating the Academy voting using ranked-choice ballots. I run 10,000 simulations, and count up how often the movie came out on top.

This year, using those weights, Nomadland won in 79 percent of the simulations. That’s pretty good, but it’s also what you’d expect of the film that won the DGA, PGA, and BAFTA. That said, there’s still a 21 percent chance Nomadland doesn’t win, and I know a guy who got mean emails for four years predicting something with better odds than that.

That’s also incidentally a little worse odds for Nomadland than genuine bookmakers give it.

I like to rely on PaddyPower, which gives the film 1/6 odds of winning, or about an implied 85 percent chance of winning.

Lastly, not to beat the drum again, but the Academy has changed so much in the past several years.

Hundreds of agents were made full-fledged voting members this year alone. The electorate is in a state of volatility, so it only makes sense that the top prize is, too.

All this means that we’re in for a great night! Best Actress is a toss-up and Best Picture is hardly in the bag. It’s exactly what you want out of this telecast. Good luck all around.

Numlock Awards: Michael's Ballot

From Best Picture to Best Visual Effects.

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.

The Oscars are tomorrow night, so here’s my ballot in case anyone wants to compare their own. I’m going to throw in some tidbits along the way of some fun narratives I haven’t yet had a chance to cover, and we’re coming down to the wire!

Best Picture

The Father Judas and the Black Messiah Mank Minari Nomadland Promising Young Woman Sound of Metal The Trial of the Chicago 7

Yes, I am going against Walter’s model here. But after reading Walter’s interview on ranked-choice voting, it got me thinking — which movie is the consensus pick? If movies like The Father, Sound of Metal, and Judas and the Black Messiah are eliminated in some of those early rounds of voting, what are the other top choices on those ballots? This is a merely a hunch, but Minari has felt a lot less divisive than Nomadland, which has inspired multiple articles about its depiction of Amazon working conditions and general frontrunner fatigue. (I’m hearing a lot of, This is the likely Best Picture winner??? from Nomadland viewers.) Does any of this matter? We’ll see. It’s not like Green Book was without controversy. But I’m going with my gut that Minari’s charms will inure to its benefit in ranked-choice voting.

Best Director

Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round David Fincher, Mank Lee Isaac Chung, Minari Chloé Zhao, Nomadland Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman

While I am skeptical on Nomadland’s Best Picture chances, Zhao is the most dominant frontrunner in recent Oscar history in any category, so I’m going to go with the odds.

Best Actress

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holliday Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman Frances McDormand, Nomadland Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Walter and I are pretty much in agreement that Viola Davis has a key advantage: she’s in a 94-minute film that’s easy to find on Netflix and stars soon-to-be Best Actor winner Chadwick Boseman. Even if the math tilts McDormand, her recent Oscar win for Three Billboards means this would be her third Oscar. Davis also won pretty recently for Fences, but even then it felt weird that Viola Davis’ only Oscar was for a supporting role. Time to correct that and give her the Best Actress Oscar, which would make her only the second Black woman in history to win the award.

Best Actor

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Anthony Hopkins, The Father Gary Oldman, Mank Steven Yeun, Minari

Easy lock. Not much competition here.

Best Supporting Actress

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy Olivia Colman, The Father Amanda Seyfried, Mank Yuh-jung Youn, Minari

Ever since the Oscar nominations came out, this has been Yuh-jung Youn’s to lose. I’m including a clip of her accepting the BAFTA just in case you missed it a few posts back. She’s wonderful.

Best Supporting Actor

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7 Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami... Paul Raci, Sound of Metal Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Daniel Kaluuya is only 32 and has starred in Get Out, Black Panther, Widows, Queen & Slim, and Judas and the Black Messiah. So an Oscar feels like the next logical step.

Best Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah Minari Promising Young Woman Sound of Metal The Trial of the Chicago 7

Promising Young Woman has had a bizarre awards season — like when it got nominated for Best Film at the BAFTAs but its British star did not, despite showing up at all the other big precursors — but I think its finding a sweet spot in picking up screenplay awards, like at the aforementioned BAFTAs and the WGA Awards.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm The Father Nomadland One Night in Miami... The White Tiger

Borat has eight people (!) nominated, but despite not being the most COVID-friendly nominee, this movie has a ton of love and support, even picking up the WGA Award. (Also a fun fact here: One Night in Miami… was written by Kemp Powers, who also co-wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul. Even so, he is not nominated in the animated feature category because of Academy rules barring co-directors from receiving a statue.)

Best Animated Feature Film

Onward Over the Moon A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon Soul Wolfwalkers

Even when Pixar has a movie that’s not super well-received, it’s a juggernaut in the category.

Best International Feature Film

Another Round (Denmark) Better Days (Hong Kong) Collective (Romania) The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia) Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

The director nod for Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg should translate into a win, but if there’s a spoiler I’m guessing it’s Quo Vadis, Aida? which just won the Independent Spirit Award.

Best Documentary Feature

Collective Crip Camp The Mole Agent My Octopus Teacher Time

Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company produced last year’s Best Doc winner (American Factory), and I think the three-year-old company is going to have a repeat win with Crip Camp.

Best Documentary Short Subject

Colette A Concerto Is a Conversation Do Not Split Hunger Ward A Love Song for Latasha

I did a whole deep dive on this category, so check it out if you missed it. Because we have basically no precursors, I’m going more on a hunch than anything else — A Love Song for Latasha is topical and easy to watch since it’s on Netflix. You can watch all of these in an afternoon if you want to get up to speed!

Best Live Action Short Film

Feeling Through The Letter Room The Present Two Distant Strangers White Eyes

Despite Oscar Isaac and Alia Shawkat starring in The Letter Room and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin exec producing Feeling Through, the conventional wisdom is that Two Distant Strangers — about a Black man stuck in a time loop forcing him to relive a fatal interaction with the police — will take home the Oscar. Directed by Emmy Award-winning Daily Show writer Travon Free, Two Daily Strangers is available to stream on Netflix now.

Best Animated Short Film

Burrow Genius Loci If Anything Happens I Love You Opera Yes-People

Academy Governor and Best Supporting Actress winner Laura Dern exec produced the Netflix short If Anything Happens I Love You, about two parents dealing with the grief of losing a child in a school shooting. It really sucks to keep saying “this movie is about a really violent and sad topic, so it’s timely!” but that’s just sort of where we are.

Best Original Score

Da 5 Bloods Mank Minari News of the World Soul

When a score is actually integral to the film’s storytelling, like in La La Land or The Artist, there’s an undeniable edge, so Soul is the likely winner given that it’s about a music teacher/jazz musician. This would be the second Oscar for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the first for Jon Batiste.

Best Original Song

"Fight for You" from Judas and the Black Messiah "Hear My Voice" from Trial of the Chicago 7 "Husavik" from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga "Io sì (Seen)" from The Life Ahead "Speak Now" from One Night in Miami...

This category is wild. You have H.E.R., a 23-year-old breakout artist fresh off multiple Grammy wins, nominated for “Fight for You.” You have Diane Warren, who landed her 12th Oscar nomination for “Io sì (Seen)” and has never taken home an Oscar — her first nomination was for “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin, which topped the Billboard charts for two weeks in 1987. (And she’s thirsty for it — just check out her Instagram to see the evidence.) And you have Best Supporting Actor nominee Leslie Odom Jr. nominated for One Night in Miami… I’m going to go with Diane Warren — even Glenn Close has got nothing on her when it comes to missed wins.

Best Sound

Greyhound Mank News of the World Soul Sound of Metal

Bummer that they merged Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. Again, because Sound of Metal’s sound mixing/editing are so integral to the story, I’m going with it.

Best Production Design

The Father Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Mank News of the World Tenet

Same logic as above, so I’m going with The Father.

Best Cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah Mank News of the World Nomadland The Trial of the Chicago 7

Joshua James Richards (Nomadland) won the BAFTA while Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) won the American Society of Cinematographers Award. Given how dominant Nomadland has been, it would be unusual for the film to only walk away with two top awards (let’s say Picture and Director, as has generally been predicted) — some craft awards should follow, so I’m going with Nomadland.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Emma Hillbilly Elegy Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Mank Pinocchio

Best Makeup often means most makeup, with past winners like Bombshell and Vice really showing off dramatic makeup and hairstyling changes to the film’s stars. Maybe if Pinocchio were a bigger movie, there’d be an argument there, but I think it’s between the transformation of Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey. I’m going with Ma Rainey because it was much more well-received than Hillbilly Elegy, which really petered out as awards season continued. Also, Viola is the lead of her movie, and Glenn is in a smaller, supporting role, so there are less chances to show off the makeup and hairstyling.

Best Costume Design

Emma Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Mank Mulan Pinocchio

I did another deep dive on this category, so check it out. I’m going with the legendary Ann “I actually have only ever had fun once and it was on Mamma Mia and I don’t remember any of it” Roth for Ma Rainey.

Best Film Editing

The Father Nomadland Promising Young Woman Sound of Metal The Trial of the Chicago 7

I currently have Chicago 7 winning zero awards, so consider this me hedging my bets a little bit. It did also pick up the American Cinema Editors Award for dramatic film.

Best Visual Effects Love and Monsters The Midnight Sky Mulan The One and Only Ivan Tenet

Tenet may not have saved cinemas from an awful pandemic year, but it was a big, flashy, special effects-heavy movie, and two of Nolan’s previous movies (Interstellar and Inception) have taken this.

It’s been a really weird season, but thanks so much for following along! Walter will follow up with some other things of note tomorrow, and feel free to email me if you have your own out-there predictions you want to share — love some good Oscar theory.

Numlock Awards: Why Best Picture has so many upsets

An exclusive interview with Rob Richie about the impact ranked-choice voting has on the Oscars.

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Something really new and exciting for today! We’re in the part of the season when all eyes are on Best Picture. While most of the Oscars are decided by just a simple first-past-the-post vote, Best Picture is decided by ranked choice. I, like a lot of you, have been really fascinated by this category over the past several years, enjoying the perceived upsets and just attempting to make sense of a category that resists sense.

A key reason for this is that a few years ago, Best Picture switched to this new voting system which just muddies the predictive waters, while all the other categories use first-past-the-post or plurality voting.

I wanted to find an expert to bounce ideas around with about the precise impact this has been having on the Oscar winners. I reached out to the organization that’s been pushing for ranked-choice voting across the country since the ’90s to get into the nitty gritty of why Best Picture — which alone uses ranked-choice to pick the winners — has specifically been so volatile, while the other categories have been easier to forecast.

This week, I’ve got a great conversation with Rob Richie, the executive director of the organization FairVote. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. It gets a little nerdy at times, but read to the end for a really fascinating look within the Academy’s thinking on their voting systems.


Walt Hickey: Can you just talk a little bit about, for folks who might be unfamiliar with ranked-choice voting, the reasons why people pursue it? What is it, and what are the advantages of it?

Rob Richie: On the most fundamental level, a ranked-choice ballot is offering the voter an opportunity to indicate backup preferences — ranked choices — rather than just a single choice. That doesn't matter if you only have two choices, because if you only have a single choice and there’re two options, it doesn't matter because one's going to get more votes than the other. But as soon as you introduce a third choice or more, if you're only limited to a single choice, you're leaving your opinion off the table for the other options. You can get an unrepresentative outcome, when you get into these sort of strategic voting things like, “Well, do I vote for the one I most like? But I think that guy's going to lose. I better vote for this other one, it's sort of a lesser of two evils, but better than the third.”

Ranked-choice voting is designed to both allow voters to be more expressive, in a sort of simple way, and more powerful, by giving them this backup to their first choice, with a second choice and a third choice if the first couple of choices can't help their candidate win. So, just giving your vote a backup gives you more power.

On the outcome side, you're trying to get outcomes that are more representative, so that more voters contribute to the outcome. If you're electing one person, rather than someone being able to win a four-candidate race with 29 percent or something, you've got to reach out to more people and, ultimately, win with more than half, and that's the goal of the system. You add up all the first choices, and see if you have a first-round winner with 50 percent or more. If not, the candidate that is in last place is the loser, first loser. They're out, their ballots go to their second choice ranked on those ballots. You rinse and repeat until a candidate surpasses the victory threshold of 50 percent.

What it means functionally, say in a New York City primary, is the winner is not only more reliably representative, but they also will have had incentives to campaign in such a way that they engage with and touch more voters. Often, particularly in primaries or a nonpartisan city race, the winner not only gets over 50 percent, but actually gets ranked first, second or third by 65 to 70 percent of voters, so that you're having that deeper connection between voter and candidate.

I think it's really interesting, particularly within the context of the Academy Awards, just because the goal of it is to make it so that at minimum, at least half of the Academy has a fingerprint on the winner in some way or another. Right?

Right, and that's based on, we don't really know, I don't think they ever released the ballot data. Right?

Nope.


There's one thing that's a complicating feature is some other awards — like the Emmys used to do this — they used to have a ranked-choice ballot, it was like a point system. In a point system, if you indicate a second or third choice, it could hurt your first choice. You're giving your first choice 10 points, and your second choice gets eight points or something. Then actually, by giving your second choice eight points, that can cause your first choice to lose. There's some people who from that experience think, “Oh, I should only rank my top choice,” or something like that.

That's not true of the Oscar system, where your backup choices only count if your first choice is out.

You have to get more than 50 percent in that instant runoff of head-to-head. You can't win by being, say, everyone's second choice. So, you do have to be a film that some people think is the best, and probably a pretty decent share. It is a system that both balances your need to have enough of the passion vote that you're in the mix of the top two or three, but of those ones, you're the one that's the most inclusive choice, the one that people are also willing to rank second and third, and so on.

I really love this part, and I want to explore that last sentence that you said. A lot of the time when watching the Academy Awards, I will feel very, very good that, if you give me three guesses, I'll get the winner for Best Picture like 100 percent of the time, but picking the one winner is always hard. You always kind of have a sense of, “It's going to be between these three.” Just because, again, you see these revealed preferences over the course of the precursor campaign. But what I'm curious about is just how these ranked-choice races tend to come down? Which is, as long as you're in the top three when it comes to preferences, after that, it just kind of shakes out into the overall majority.


It’s a little more unpredictable in a nonpartisan city race or a primary. So, say, if you’re in New York City, there's Scott Stringer, Andrew Yang, Eric Adams and Maya Wiley. There’s these top tier four or five candidates.

The way voters are, certainly in these nonpartisan races, is there's almost always a real coherence to what the individual is doing. If you ask an individual what they’re doing, they have an internally coherent rationale for how they’re ranking, but it’s not often grouped simplistically. It’s not like everyone that ranks a certain candidate first is going to rank the same candidate second. Which means, from a candidate perspective, if you think that candidate is going to go out, the one who has, say, 10 percent of first choices, there are reasons to compete for that vote because those voters aren't just all going to go to the same person, usually.

You translate that to the Academy, it's like, what is the pattern of when a certain movie is going to lose in the algorithm, what's the rationale for that individual voter? It will be different, right? It'll be like, "Well, I really like this kind of film, or I like these kinds of actors, or this kind of costume design,” or something like that.

There's been these critiques of the ranked-choice voting winners, as somehow being...I don't know, less daring or something. It doesn't feel like that's been true to me — it seems like there have been some pretty interesting ones. But also that there's been a lot of overlap with Best Director. Because obviously people are looking for different things sometimes. But is there a different pattern since the ranked-choice voting era of Best Director versus Best Picture?

No, you're really onto something, because Best Director used to be the gold standard in predicting Best Picture, and there's been a deviation recently. It's lost a little bit of its shine. The DGA has just been getting worse, losing its ability to correctly predict the Best Picture winner.

There's a world in which that's just because the DGA hasn't been as aggressive as the Academy has in expanding membership, but there's also a world in which, realistically, the way that we select the Best Director, both for the DGA and for Best Director at the Oscars, is different than how we select Best Picture. So, that's a really interesting point that you've highlighted.

It will be interesting to see if there are different kinds of movies that win in those — the Best Director movie versus the Best Picture movie. And does that say something about the system, or what the system rewards?

Yeah, to give you a little ammunition there, I think we can look at some of the bigger splits recently. So, you saw Damien Chazelle win for
La La Land, but then Moonlight won Best Picture. You also saw when Green Book won, it beat out Roma, but Alfonso Cuarón did win for Best Director. You're seeing more and more split decisions, but I don't think that you're seeing a pattern in Best Picture when it breaks with Best Director. You’re not seeing only popcorn movies win, or only critical darlings — it’s quite mixed.

I know some point to The King's Speech, but The King's Speech also won Best Director. It's like, “Well, I guess there was support for that kind of movie among the Academy voters.”

The ranked-choice algorithm that's used for Best Picture, the instant runoff concept, is used quite widely. Like in New York City, all these other cities, a couple of states now in presidential races, all the Canadian political parties.

What it does — I think that why it's chosen — is it's a bit of a balancing act. In a plurality system, it's the only thing that matters: your first choice, that's it. And in a ranked-choice, in an instant runoff system, it's pretty darn important. You do want to be in those top three choices, almost certainly, to have any chance to win. It's a compromise between another kind of ranked-choice, where it doesn't matter at all what your first choice is. So, it's sort of somewhere in the middle.

Applied to Oscar world, given how a lot of people have thought about Oscar voters traditionally, they wouldn't want the majority winner to always have to win the Oscar.

The big question that we're leading around to is in a plurality system, the person with the highest floor of support can oftentimes succeed. We kind of saw that, not to dredge anything up, but in 2016 with Trump. He didn't really have a particularly high ceiling of support in those primaries, but he had a very reliable floor, and because of the plurality vote he was able to steamroll.

With ranked-choice, it seems like it's less about how high your floor is, and instead it's more about how high your ceiling is. Where, if you don't have north of a majority, or north of a rival contender, you're going to have a hard time building the coalition that you need.

Yeah, and I think that's a great way to say it, with one caveat being that you need enough of a floor to advance out of the first round. You do have to have some core support to be in the mix.

Then after that you better watch out if you have a low ceiling. That's a good way to think about why ranked-choice voting can be interesting, in candidate elections, because you do get these candidates sometimes. Arguably, Trump in the primaries would have been a good example where he did have a ceiling, and he would have had to change that to win in ranked choice.

We actually did a ranked-choice poll during the 2016 primaries, we did it with the College of William and Mary at the time of the Iowa caucuses. And Trump was the plurality first choice and the plurality last choice, among 11 candidates.

He was very polarizing and he did lose the instant runoff at that time to Ted Cruz, who was at his peak of popularity.

That was sort of a pattern we saw, in ranked-choice type polls, that he was generally the first-choice candidate, but he also had a ceiling. That kind of candidate doesn't do as well with a ranked-choice system unless they change their behavior and learn how to raise their ceiling.

Expanding that back to the Oscars, most of, if not all of the precursor awards, tend to be plurality vote systems, first-past-the-post systems. I'm thinking that they're very good for discerning the floor, but they're not as good at discerning the ceiling.


Yes, absolutely.

Roma, it was a Netflix movie, and who knows if the Academy voters at that time just had a ceiling for Netflix movies, or something like that, like, “We're not ready to give up on the cinema yet.” And so that alone might have been the difference for the plurality versus the ranked-choice outcome, which is sort of simplistically looking at it.

That's a movie that does have things that give it a ceiling. Like, obviously, great film, but again, its distribution was Netflix. It is in a different language, which may have presented difficulties for some voters. There is a world in which that's a movie that has the floor that gets it to the top tier of contenders, but it has the ceiling. I think you can also argue La La Land, which is a musical about Los Angeles in an increasingly global Academy, or 1917, which is a war movie, may not be everybody's cup of tea. These are movies that demonstrated having a very robust floor, but lacked the potential ceiling to close the deal, so to speak, under ranked-choice.

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. It's interesting to think about. Then you could get a sort of predictive model, and that's what you're doing. It sounds like you have a pretty sophisticated model for doing your predictions.

It's
fine. I'm very interested in understanding the world, rather than simply trying to model it, but that's one reason that I was really keen to get you on the phone. But sorry, go on.

It's both looking at what's happened in the other award shows, that's going to be a huge predicting thing. And then it's this other one, where you almost have to begin understanding the electorate. That kind of Academy voter electorate, and what are their ceilings? What's going to define them? How is that changing with this infusion of new participants, which is pretty fascinating.

It's a fascinating question, I'm obsessed with it. I'm very interested in voting systems, and I think that it's so cool that the Academy actually makes a go of it and does one of the better ones. It's definitely a really good chance to understand what the benefits are of some of these alternative voting systems.

It's interesting that they chose the ranked-choice system, the single transferable vote, way back in the ’30s for nominations. It really was that insight that they wanted the nominees to be reflective of the Academy voters, so that people felt like they had a stake in the Oscars, which for me is a nice lesson in, “Wouldn't it be nice if we felt that way about Congress?” where you could say, “I have a stake. I have, actually, a voice.” Wouldn't that be nice?

They did that early. You think of some of the other award shows, they're having to have people come in and change the nominations. We have these sort of super people, whatever, this non-democratic process of overriding the nominations because they don't use a fairer approach that just crowdsources, collectively, a set of nominees. There's actually an interesting push to bring that proportional form of ranked-choice voting to the Grammys. It is a lively conversation, within that world.

Can you talk a little bit about when you talked to the Academy about what their goals were when they decided to roll this out?

This is back in the ’90s, and I was just getting going at FairVote, and found out about this use of the proportional form of ranked-choice voting, single transferable vote for nominations. This is in pre-internet land, so I wrote a letter to the Academy, and I got a really nice letter back from the then-Executive Director. It wasn't directly this — I picked up on what I felt his intent was — but basically he was appreciative that I was appreciative of their use of this fair nomination system. He had a line about, “this gives more people a stake in Oscar night.” Then he said something to the effect of, “Well, there's sort of a debate about what we want for winning Oscars. And we certainly want to,” — and this is many years ago, so I'm not quoting it exactly right, but — “we want to have some excitement on Oscar Night,” or something like that.

The way I read it, I was like, “Oh, right. You actually want upsets.” They actually want a plurality outcome, where not what everyone thinks should win, will win. You want to draw people to Oscar night, and then you want to have like, “Wow, how did that actor win?” So, that plurality voting was actually almost a virtue in that it can be surprising sometimes, which I thought was interesting.

Then when they went to 10 movies, they expanded the number of nominations. They didn't want to a real outlier to win with 14 percent of the vote or something.

I think the expanded field was what allowed them to use a fairer system for Best Picture. It just created enough conjecture and mulling. Kind of that same thing you were saying, “Well, I can get it down to three, but I just don't know for sure which of those three.” That's exactly what they want, right? They want you to not know.

So, even though ranked-choice voting is a reliable, fairer system, the fact that it's a complex enough field that you don't know for sure speaks to their interests of having surprises while they can still have a fairer outcome than some really bad movie winning, or something like that.

It's worked in that sense, in that even the conversation we're having is sort of grounded in, “Well, it's hard to know.” They actually want to have suspense, and not have like, “Well, everyone knows it's going to be Nomadland, so forget it.” Or something like that. And probably it will be Nomadland, but it might be Minari. And that's where people can have these conversations, that ranked-choice voting invites speculation. In a way, if I'm an Oscar organizer, I actually like that.

Can you just tell me, as we wrap it up, a little bit about your organization? Where can folks find your work and the work that you all do?


Yes. So, we're FairVote, FairVote.org, and have carried the lantern for these fairer voting systems since the ’90s. What's been really exciting for us is, in the last five years in particular, it's just taken off. I wouldn't say we're at a tipping point, but we're at a point where, say, New York City is using ranked-choice voting, and we expect maybe a double digit number of Utah cities to end up using ranked-choice voting this fall, and Virginia Republicans are using it to nominate their candidates for governor, and Democrats in four states did it for presidential primaries.

There's now a really fun, lively conversation in Congress, that is an increasing focus for us as an organization, on what we ultimately can do in Congress. Because we do feel that a breakdown of political norms and polarization is creating a real conversation about how to change political incentives through new, better voting systems.

We think within the next 10 years, we all might follow the Academy, in some of its choices.

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