India markets open in 1 hour 9 minutes

Who’ll win big at the Oscars? Number crunchers put in their predictions

Alan Boyle
The favorites for best-picture Oscar include “Lady Bird” (with Saoirse Ronan, upper left), “Get Out” (with Daniel Kaluuya, upper right), “The Shape of Water” (with Sally Hawkins, lower left) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (with Frances McDormand, lower right). (Photos: A24 / IAC, Universal Pictures, Fox Searchlight, Twentieth Century Fox)

Update for 1:25 p.m. PT March 5: Looks like the living, breathing humans — and Unanimous AI — take the statuette for Oscar predictions this year. Scroll down to the end of the story for the results.

Previously: The Academy Awards are literally the gold standard when it comes to Hollywood movies, but they’re also a testing ground for a far geekier pursuit: predicting who’ll win the Oscars, based on big data.

Crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence and social-media analytics all come into play, as well as the gut feelings of movie reviewers around the world. When I tune in the Oscars telecast on Sunday night, I’ll be checking off not only who wins the golden statuettes, but also who came closest to getting it right.

For a baseline, let’s take the annual predictions from Seattle Times movie reviewer Moira Macdonald: In the best-picture category, she’s going with “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro’s visually glorious fish tale (fish-man tale?). That’s also the prediction from The New York Times’ Cara Buckley.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The data-based predictions diverge, providing a litmus test for the wisdom of the experts vs. the wisdom of crowds. Check these out, not only for the best-picture bellwether, but for other predictions as well:

Betfair: Microsoft researcher David Rothschild looks to this betting site as a prediction market worth following, not only for political propositions but for the Oscars as well. The current favorite is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri,” a heartstring-pulling murder mystery. Rothschild’s PredictWise website passes along Betfair’s picks in an easy-to-scan format.

Gold Derby: This website sets up contests for predicting the winners of awards ranging from the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys to reality-TV laurels. The participants who rack up the most “prediction points” win Amazon gift certificates. In the contest for the best-picture Oscar, “Three Billboards” is the current favorite, pulling ahead of “The Shape of Water” just as the Oscar voting period ended this week.

Hitwise: This marketing analysis company focused on search-engine statistics generated by each of the best-picture nominees, and found that one movie stood out during the Oscar voting period: “Lady Bird,” a coming-of-age film set in Sacramento. Two other nominees sparked search-engine spikes after their release: “Get Out,” the horror movie that’s laced with black comedy (in more ways than one); and “Dunkirk,” a dour saga about the Allied evacuation from the coast of France in 1940.

A chart that tracks searches for movie titles shows significant spikes for “Get Out” in blue, “Dunkirk” in yellow and “Lady Bird” in pinkish red. (Hitwise Graphic)

Rotten Tomatoes: Two of the nine Oscar-nominated movies — “Get Out” and “Lady Bird” — earned 99 percent ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the most widely respected review aggregators. Could that affect the Academy vote? Movie analyst Daniel Joyaux suspects that’s so, and argues his case in a piece written for The Verge.

Unanimous AI: This company combines artificial intelligence tools with good old crowdsourcing to come up with predictions through a dynamic “swarm” process that’s reminiscent of a tug of war. It’s recorded notable successes in anticipating the Oscars as well as Time’s “Person of the Year” and sports contests. This year, the best-picture favorite is “The Shape of Water.” Unanimous’ other picks include Frances McDormand (best actress), Gary Oldman (best actor), Guillermo del Toro (best director), Sam Rockwell (best supporting actor) and Allison Janney (best supporting actress).

Another category that interests me this year is best original screenplay. That’s because one of the nominees is “The Big Sick,” a romantic tale based on comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with co-writer Emily Gordon. It’s the one movie with a high-profile connection to Amazon Studios, and you can bet I’ll be watching out for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos among the VIPs.

And who knows? Maybe the Oscar ceremony will include an Amazon joke or two, just as it did last year. Anyone care to make a prediction?

Update for 1:25 p.m. PT March 5: Unanimous AI nailed it with correct predictions for all of the Big 6 categories, and a nine-out-of-10 score for other notable categories. (The swarm-AI prediction process missed out on “The Shape of Water” for production design, going with “Blade Runner 2049” instead.)

The New York Times’ Cara Buckley got the Big 6 right, and went four for five with her other predictions. (She missed picking “Icarus” as best documentary.) The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald correctly predicted five of the Big 6, missing only with her prediction of Christopher Plummer as best supporting actor instead of Sam Rockwell, the actual winner.

The others blew their 48-hour forecast for the big-picture Oscar, but there’s a caveat in Betfair’s case. The betting line shifted in favor of “The Shape of Water” halfway through the telecast. Microsoft’s David Rothschild rates Betfair’s performance as 20 out of 24.

When it comes to the Amazon angles, the original-screenplay Oscar went to “Get Out” (which was heavily favored) rather than Amazon Studios’ “The Big Sick.”

And yes, I did manage to spot Jeff Bezos in the audience, though it wasn’t easy. No Amazon jokes popped up, but there were a few Walmart “Box” commercials.

This year, Bezos had a higher profile at the pre-Oscar parties than he did at the ceremony itself. And at least one of the parties that he attended hosted rival space billionaire Elon Musk as well. Check out the reports from Page Six, the Hollywood Reporter and WWD — and then reflect upon this tweet:

More from GeekWire: