Numlock Awards: They Have The Votes

The New Academy has the numbers. We'll see if campaigners realize that.

The Numlock Awards Supplement is your one-stop awards season update. You’ll get two editions per week, one from Not Her Again’s Michael Domanico breaking down an Oscar contender or campaigner and taking you behind the storylines, and the other from Walt Hickey looking at the numerical analysis of the Oscars and the quest to predict them. We’re in the endgame now, so you’ll get this bonus email today and another bonus email Friday as we finish the Oscar race with a bang.

If you’re just joining us, catch up on everything this season by checking out this post. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Today is the final day of voting for Academy members. By the end of the day, there will be an Oscar winner. We won’t know until Sunday which it is, but the ballot box will be closed. Hundreds of members will cast their first ballot this year. For thousands, the process will still feel new. They’re the New Academy, the group of people invited to join only recently. And they have far more power than they realize.

It may not be this year, and it may not be next year, but one of these days a movie or a performer is going to realize that The New Academy has the votes.

Several years ago, the Academy observed that they were not doing an adequate job of representing the global and diverse film industry, and launched a years-long effort to increase their ranks and target film professionals that may have been overlooked in recent years based on their gender or race or national origin.

I’ll admit it: I was highly skeptical that the group would be able to satisfy its goals when the program was announced. I think I put that skepticism in print at some point but wasn’t able to find it, but if the words exist I’m delighted to eat them. Because to their credit, the Academy legitimately acted on its goals to diversify, and made the hard and controversial choices necessary to enact bona fide change.

They invited 3,430 people to join the Academy from 2012 to 2018. That’s a breathtaking figure when you realize there were fewer than 6,000 voters in AMPAS in 2012. Based on the net increase in voters — 2,147 net additional voters since 2012 after factoring in retirements and deaths — it’s time to recognize that this is a fundamentally different organization than it was before the reforms. By my estimate, 39 percent of AMPAS voters joined in the past five years.

And nobody is campaigning like that matters.

I mean, that’s a fairly broad statement and I’m sure there are some performers or pros making a play at the newcomers. But no film is ceding the stodgy older Academy and coming right out and saying, “This is the film for the New Academy.” There are some campaigns vaguely motioning in that direction. I’m specifically thinking of Black Panther, but they haven’t gone so far as make it a central pitch. There are films that will absolutely benefit from the shift even if it’s not a part of their push, mainly Roma.

(A fact lost on lots of movie fans is that a massive chunk of the new invitees are from the international scene. When I was drawing up stats on membership I learned that in 2001, 74 percent of the Academy lived in California.)

But should a Best Picture campaign try it, it could seriously work. The exciting part of how the ranked preference voting works is that it just takes a dedicated baseline of support to throw their #1 votes at a film that looks to be a forlorn hope to push it over the top.

I’m going to show this pretty simply by taking the beta model I designed and just messing with a few of the scores. In a typical run, the script generates thousands of ballots based on the precursors and draws conclusions about the films based on how often the voting breaks in their direction.

There’s nothing stopping us from generating some ballots a different way. I could program it to find out what happens if half the voters abstain. I could make it so half the voters love Green Book and half despise it. I could mess with it so every actor ranked The Favourite number one. If Michael demands it, I could even run it where everyone writes in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to win. It’s a model — finding out how to break it is most of the fun.

So to demonstrate the power of the new bloc, I reprogrammed the model so that 45 percent of the Academy really liked Black Panther. (I picked Panther because it’s doing OK in the model, but its chances are still pretty out there in left field, winning just shy of 5 percent of simulations in the main model. I also picked Panther because if there’s a movie this year that appeals to the New Academy, it’s that.)

Here’s how it broke down. Can a minority of Oscar voters with a stronger affinity for one film change the outcome? It depends on how much more they like it.

  • In the basic simulation, Black Panther wins 482 out of 10,000 model runs.

  • First, I gave Black Panther a nudge. In this simulation, 55 percent of the Academy had the standard preference set, and 45 percent liked Black Panther slightly more than usual. It’s as if it had 50 more points than it does right now, like if it had won the BAFTA over Roma. The effects appear slim to begin with: Black Panther gets top ranking on 12.6 percent of control group ballots, and among the New Academy here it is top ranked on 13.4 percent ballots. Still, that’s enough: in this simulation, Panther won 1,826 times out of 10,000 simulations. That’s almost four times as much, and from just a slight affinity tweak for a fraction of the Academy.

  • Next, I gave Black Panther a push. In this simulation, 45 percent of the Academy liked Black Panther considerably more than usual, as if it had about 100 more points than it does right now. The surface-level effects still appear small: Black Panther was top ranked in 14.3 percent of New Academy ballots. But in this simulation, Panther won 4,162 times out of 10,000 simulations. This becomes a Roma vs. Black Panther race. It is nine times as likely to win the vote than we think it is right now.

  • Third, I gave Panther a shove. This simulation is the equivalent of Black Panther being a major favorite among the New Academy. The boost — which cranks up the baseline love 1.5 times as high as normal among the test population — has the New Academy putting Panther as its top vote 15.9 percent of the time. In such a situation, Panther wins 8,465 out of 10,000 times.

  • Fourth, I just decided to break it. I made it so that Panther basically had twice the score of its rivals among the New Academy and was twice as likely to get ranked compared to its rivals. Again, the movie still gets only 19 percent of number one votes. But it wins 9,994 of 10,000 simulations.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain why the Academy Awards prediction game is getting so damn interesting, I return to the same analogy: imagine a mayoral election in a city where 39 percent of the voters moved to town in the past five years. You wouldn’t even begin to know where to start polling. The uncertainty would be higher than ever. Anybody can win. Not only would you gird your loins for an upset, you’d be ready to overhaul your beliefs about the voters based on the outcomes. It’s once-in-a-generation exciting.

Quick aside: it may strike you that Moonlight winning was the first flex of this coalition’s muscle, and I can agree in part with that. However, Moonlight had to have been considerably more popular with the entire Academy to pull off its win, and was a fairly undisputed second place for favorite. I would also like to remind you that 1,700 people have been invited to join the Academy as voters since Moonlight won, roughly half of the New Academy.

The point of what I’m trying to say is that a dedicated subgroup of the Academy can absolutely drive the bus if they coalesce around a film. And I don’t think that’s happening this year, I don’t think that anyone Best Picture campaign is explicitly running that play, and if they are I’m unaware of it.

But I think it could happen this year. The numbers are there. The math works. It didn’t used to work, but the levees broke and a corner was turned and now it does. And even if it’s not this year, I know it will happen soon.

Someone’s just got to roll the dice and make a go for it. Models are made to be broken. So are expectations. The New Academy may be new, but they’re a whole lot of the Academy. They’re waiting for the right movie and the right campaign.

And whoever first makes that leap of fate and sticks the landing will win an Oscar.

Walter writes the daily morning newsletter Numlock News and tweets at @WaltHickey.