How FiveThirtyEight Adapted Its Election Model to Predict the Next Oscar Winners

Big night coming for The Revenant

FiveThirtyEight, the ESPN-owned data-driven news site, has become famous for its accuracy in predicting the outcomes of the past two presidential elections. But over the last few years, the site has attempted to use data to make predictions in another industry that launches yearlong campaigns in the quest for votes: the Oscars.

"[Nate Silver] kind of came up with the model in an off-election year," said Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight's lead lifestyle writer, who has been handling Oscars coverage for the past two years.

Essentially, the model looks at which of the awards shows in the run-up to the Oscars are the best at predicting Academy Award winners. "It looks at the 25-year success rate," said Hickey. FiveThirtyEight uses this method to predict the winners for the six major categories: Best Picture, Best Director and the four acting categories.

Oscar nominees get points for being nominated for or winning other awards that historically predict an Oscar-night win. The better a historical predictor a given award is, the more points it's worth. "The DGA [Directors Guild of America Award] is most predictive of the director award," said Hickey. Prior to the Directors Guild Award, Hickey's model placed Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller in the lead. But that night's winner, The Revenant's Alejandro Iñárritu, is now considered the front-runner.

Hickey cautions this method is nowhere near as accurate as the site's election model—largely because it doesn't have nearly as much data to draw assumptions from. But FiveThirtyEight correctly predicted five of the six winners at last year's Oscars. The only one it got wrong was Best Director. "It's good for the broad strokes of the race," said Hickey.

After the Satellite Awards, the final pre-Oscars awards show, which aired Sunday night, Hickey published his final predictions for Oscar Sunday on Feb. 28:

  • Best Picture: The Revanant
  • Best Director: Alejandro Iñárritu, The Revenant
  • Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
  • Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room
  • Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
  • Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

"Best Picture this year has been an absolute circus," said Hickey, who has seen five different films take the lead since December. The Revenant's DGA and BAFTA wins put it over the top. "All of them have been believable when it came to the possibility of actually pulling out ahead."

Like many other Oscar prognosticators, Hickey is predicting a big night for The Revenant, including Leonardo DiCaprio finally capturing that elusive Academy Award. "We're seeing everyone kind of line up behind DiCaprio on that," said Hickey.

The closest race? Best Supporting Actor where Hickey sees Stallone narrowly edging out Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance. "I'm really skeptical of the model's ability to predict this race," he admitted. "It's a very tight one, [and] we haven't had a lot of good data from it."

Hickey also crowdsourced FiveThirtyEight's readership to come up with its own models for predicting winners, ranging from mining the Internet, box office results, scores on Rotten Tomatoes and film reviews.

"There's got to be something better—let's see if we can figure out what that looks like," said Hickey.