Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans is the early favorite to win the Oscar for best picture. Or maybe it’s Babylon. Or The Banshees of Inisherin, or Everything Everywhere All at Once, or Tár, or Top Gun: Maverick. For now, it depends on which expert you ask.
We’re just days away from what some deem the true start of Oscar season, when the critics groups begin to make their voices heard. And with those slates of nominees will come yet another “early favorite” — perhaps one of the films listed above. But how much should we trust that the early favorite is indeed the favorite?
To answer this question, I noted the winners from eight major critics groups going back to at least 1990, giving us 32 years of data with which to work. It turns out that those eight — the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics and critic circles in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City and London — have a spotty track record.
Of the 32 best picture winners in that span, only 11 were the “early favorite,” which I define as the film that won a plurality of those eight honors: The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, American Beauty, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker, The Artist, 12 Years a Slave, Parasite and Nomadland. The tally rises to 13 if we include ties: Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E won three apiece, as did the forever linked Moonlight and La La Land.
Complicating matters is that the early favorite is often far from unanimous. Only Schindler’s List and The Social Network swept all eight of these critics groups, and the latter still lost to The King’s Speech a couple of months later. In three years — 1996, 2000 and 2017 — the eight early awards were split among six different films. Yet somehow, not a single one of those went on to win the Academy Award, because The English Patient, Gladiator and The Shape of Water were all shut out of those critics groups.
And they’re not the only films that went 0-for-8 in the early going but gained late momentum to win the Oscar: Braveheart, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Argo and CODA also had to endure eight straight misses from December competitions only to emerge triumphant.
In the reverse, three movies — Mulholland Drive, About Schmidt and United 93 — were all deemed early favorites by this methodology but didn’t even get a best picture nomination, an unfortunate phenomenon that’s less likely to occur now that the Academy has doubled the size of its top category.
There does appear to be some correlation between how well a film does among these critical honors and its ultimate fate at the Oscars, even if it is scattershot. The chart at left, which looks at the past two decades, shows that while many best picture winners pick up critics’ honors along the campaign, there remain a handful of films that manage to forge their own path to the Academy’s top prize.
These days, we have even more data to indicate an early favorite, as the number of December awards has grown substantially since 1990, with critics groups forming in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Dallas, among other cities. But at least from this data set, the mid-December favorite has slightly more than a 1-in-3 chance to ultimately hoist the final statue, which gives the Oscar race plenty of time to offer twists and turns during January, February and March.
Ben Zauzmer is the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.