Numlock Awards: Why Best Picture front-runners aren’t locks anymore

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.

Gonna keep it quick today!

This past weekend, we got the final bits of data we need going into Oscar night. The BAFTA went to 1917, capping off an award-season tear where the film was honored by the Producers and Directors Guilds. These three prizes are among the most predictive — the lack of a nomination for an acting prize at the Screen Actors Guild will likely give the film’s backers pause — and we have a fairly indisputable frontrunner heading into Oscar night.

Indisputable, however, does not mean insurmountable.

Though they’re considerably less predictive than the three prizes 1917 locked down, it needs to be said that 1917 didn’t pick up anything at the Writers Guild, the American Cinema Editors, or the Critics’ Choice awards. That the actors didn’t even nominate it — instead awarding Parasite, now the strongest of the underdogs — means that 1917 may have the lead, but it’s not unanimous by any stretch.

As I highlighted last week, the larger the field the lower the advantage granted to the perceived front-runner. A reason for this is that lots of the other precursor prizes use a first-past-the-post voting system, not a ranked-choice voting system. In first-past-the-post systems, something can win a prize with a plurality of support, while in the ranked-choice system something can only win with a majority of support.

A film with 35 percent support detested by the other 65 percent can win in a first-past-the-post system but will lose in the ranked choice system.

The reason that frontrunners do worse with more nominees is that our understanding of the current state of the race is far fuzzier; even with a small field, we only have approximations because precursor awards don’t exactly release vote counts. And the more nominees in the mix, the higher the probability the outcome of precursor awards is being affected by vote splitting, which goes further to undermine our understanding of the race.

Basically, it’s not that more nominees mean less advantage for the movie that’s ahead. Better stated, more nominees mean that we have less certainty that the movie that looks like it’s ahead actually is.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say we had an Oscar race with just two nominees. A first-past-the-post election and a ranked-choice election would have the same outcome every single time. Let’s say I have three nominees: the chances get a little worse for the perceived front-runner, but a lead is a lead. Once you increment the number of nominees, the certainty the entity you think is the frontrunner has a lead shrinks. We don’t know that a lead by winning a bunch of first-past-the-post races remains a lead after being run through ranked-choice voting.

All this is to say that even though every single one of our races this year has a distinct front-runner, I’m much less certain about Best Picture, which does ranked choice, than say Best Director, which does first-past-the-post.

This weekend: final predictions, more stuff about The Academy, and the big night!

We’ll be doing the mailbag again for the weekend after the Oscars to cap off the season, so get those questions in to