How to predict the Oscars

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The Academy Awards are all glitz, glamour, and praying for Leonardo DiCaprio from the outside, and studio campaigns, after parties, and Leonardo DiCaprio praying for himself from the inside. But there’s also over eight decades of Oscar trends, a whole host of unwritten rules and more than 40 critics’ ceremonies to take into consideration each year.

Attempting to crack the Oscars is a bit like trying to decipher the Da Vinci Code, so buckle up as we get into the nitty gritty of where to place your chips come Oscar night.

alejandro iñárritu birdman oscars

1. You need a Best Director nomination to win Best Picture

Like Spielberg and Hanks, DiCaprio and Scorsese, these two go hand in hand.

Only four films have ever won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination: Wings, Grand Hotel, Driving Miss Daisy, and, of course, Argo. On the flipside, two Best Director Oscars have been won for films without a Best Picture nomination - but these (Two Arabian Nights; The Divine Lady) were in the 1920s, so the chances of that ever happening again are surely zero.

Everything except The Big Short, Max Max: Fury Road, The Revenant and Spotlight can wave goodbye to their hopes of winning this year’s Best Picture Oscar. Room may have a directorial nomination, but with no DGA nom for Lenny Abrahamson, well, that leads rather neatly into our next point...

ben affleck argo oscar

2. To win Best Director, you need to win the Directors Guild of America’s big prize

In 2013, Argo won Best Picture even though Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Which is big news when you consider the DGA and Oscar director prizes have matched every single time bar seven (Oliver! beating; The Lion In Winter; Cabaret over The Godfather; Out Of Africa instead of The Color Purple; Braveheart over Apollo 13; Traffic beating Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Pianist trumping Chicago; Life Of Pi instead of Argo). Three of those instances (The Color Purple, Apollo 13, Argo) were purely because the Academy didn’t nominate a director.

This year that spells bad news for Brooklyn’s John Crowley, Bridge Of Spies’ Steven Spielberg, and Room’s Lenny Abrahamson who, though, nominated for Best Director by the Academy, didn’t receive a DGA nomination. Ridley Scott did get a DGA nomination, but was left out of the Best Director Oscar race.

kate winslet leonardo dicaprio james cameron titanic on set

3. Want to win Best Picture? A screenplay nod will help

Alright, so Titanic didn’t get a script nomination, but it was the only Best Picture winner in five decades not to do so. Such is the power of Jack and Rose, apparently.

mel gibson braveheart oscars

4. You can’t win Best Picture without a SAG Best Ensemble nomination

As well as defying Academy Award logic by taking Best Picture in 1996 (we’ll get to that later), Braveheart snatched the top prize without its ensemble receiving a SAG nomination - which is practically unheard of. It’s worth noting the overlap of votes between SAG and the Academy - something that reared its head when the guild awarded Crash Best Ensemble prior to its infamous Oscar win over Brokeback Mountain. (For the record, BAFTA’s voting membership also overlaps, but less so than SAG, and the Critics’ Choice lot are entirely journalists. So no overlap.)

amour movie 2012

5. Animations, sequels and foreign films don’t win Best Picture

And that’s if you’re nominated in the first place... Of the nine foreign films (2012’s Amour being the most recent) and three animations that have been considered for the top prize, none have ever won. Sequels have had it slightly better, but only two have made the grade (The Godfather: Part II, The Return Of The King). Scorsese’s The Departed flies a solo flag for remakes taking top honours on Oscar night, with documentaries yet to gain a single nomination.

kathryn bigelow oscar win

6. Female director? Then you probably won’t get nominated at all

Only one (yes, one) female director has won a Best Directing Oscar. Take a bow, Kathryn Bigelow. Prior to her win for The Hurt Locker in 2009, only three (yes, three) other women were up for the prize: Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), and Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, 2003). Here’s looking at you, Ava DuVernay, Lisa Cholodenko, Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt, Jodie Foster, Ana Lily Amirpour, Lone Scherfig, Agnès Varda, Lynn Shelton, Reed Morano, Andrea Arnold, Lana Wachowski and so many, many more…

jared leto winning critics' choice award

7. The Critics’ Choice Awards have a surprisingly good record of predicting the big Oscar categories

Back in 1996, the Broadcast Film Critics Association held their first ceremony, aka the Critics’ Choice Awards. It may sound like it’s voted for by teenagers, but there’s a lot of reason to keep their picks in mind. (Here comes our Ray Winstone floaty head bit…)

In the twenty years since their inaugural awards, they have* an 80 percent success rate for Director; 65 percent for Supporting Actress and Best Actor; 60 percent for Best Picture; and 55 percent for Actress and Supporting Actor. Over the same period, BAFTA predicted 55 percent of the eventual Best Picture winners, SAG following with 50 percent, and the Golden Globes’ Drama category with 45 percent.

Shakespeare In Love, Chicago and The Artist winning Best Comedy or Musical would boost the Globes’ success rate up to a much more respectable 60 percent. The PGA and DGA come out on top, however, with 70-75 percent respectively. Not bad.

(* as of 2015)

reese witherspoon walk the line oscar win

8. Winning a Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice and SAG award makes you a shoo-in for an acting Oscar

Every year sees actors and actresses battle it out (in a thankfully non-Hunger Games-style) to grace the stage come Oscar night. You may be hard pushed to sweep the 'big five' if you’re running alongside Meryl-in-waiting Jennifer Lawrence, but if you take the BAFTA, SAG, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award, well, you better hope you’ve got a personal Oscar polisher on speed dial.

Twenty-two have managed the ‘big five’ since 1996, including Javier Bardem for No Country For Old Men, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls and Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood and Lincoln.

sandy powell oscar win

9. Always bet on Colleen Atwood and Sandy Powell

Betting against costume designers extraordinaire Atwood and Powell is a risky business. Between them they boast 22 nominations, resulting in six wins. Alright, that’s just under a third each, but this is undeniably impressive stuff. The hardest part is choosing who to bet on: each of their three wins meant they beat the other. Powell also beat herself in 1999, when Shakespeare In Love’s ruffs and tights triumphed over Velvet Goldmine’s sequins and spandex. 2016’s Oscars see her battling herself once more with Cinderella vs. Carol.

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10. But maybe you should bet against Roger Deakins

Thirteen cinematography nominations + no wins = one of the biggest Oscar injustices in history.

kevin bacon tom hanks apollo 13

11. A DGA, PGA and SAG triple-win is the key to success

The last film to win the holy trifecta of SAG (Best Ensemble), PGA (Best Producer), DGA (Best Director) and not take the big prize on Oscar night was Apollo 13 losing to Braveheart in 1996. And this is where those who kept supporting Birdman over Boyhood on Oscar night 2015 really knew their stuff. Why was that? You’ve got it: it had won SAG’s Best Ensemble, and top honours from the Producers and Directors Guilds.

adrien brody kissing halle berry oscars

12. There will always be Oscar upsets

Crash over Brokeback Mountain, anyone? What about Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan, and - as we promised to return to earlier - Braveheart over Apollo 13 and Sense & Sensibility? Adrien Brody? Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter? Oscar upsets have been happening since the awards began back in 1929. There will always be stories of people refusing to watch screeners (hello, Brokeback Mountain) or tales of people reading the wrong name (hello, Marisa Tomei), but the fact is that there’s no surefire way to predict how over 6000 people are going to vote. It is, quite frankly, impossible. At the end of the day it’s all just personal taste. Right?

Head here for our thoughts on how the 2016 Oscars will play out on the night.

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