How to Engineer a Best Picture Oscar

Michael Copeland

Photo: Thomas Hawk

Photo: Thomas Hawk


Fast & Furious 6 is not in the race for Best Picture in the upcoming Oscars. All five of the preceding gearhead movies were similarly snubbed. If you are a fan of muscle cars or Vin Diesel (sometimes hard to distinguish between the two), this ongoing insult may seem unfair. But according to analysis of past Best Picture nominees by data jockey Benn Stancil, it’s not the mumbled lines or wooden acting that is preventing the Fast & Furious crew from getting a shot at an acceptance speech – it’s that it has virtually none of the elements required for a Best Picture win. The participation of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis for starters. Or that it not be a sequel, which, as the sixth in a series it certainly is.

In an attempt to engineer the perfect Best Picture, at least by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences standards, Stancil, who is the chief data analyst at San Francisco-based startup Mode Analytics, sifted through mountains of data collected from entertainment information outfit Rovi and the Academy Awards database. The result, Stancil says with a laugh, “is the ultimate Frankensteinian Oscar-bait.” And like Frankenstein, it could be a triumph or an abomination.

Crime dramas and biopics

As we all know without any detailed analysis required, dramas are your surest shot to an Oscar win. “Fifty percent of movies nominated for any Oscar are dramas,” Stancil says, “Compared to 75 percent for Best Picture nominees.”

But telling aspiring Best Picture winners to go make a drama isn’t all that helpful, Stancil admits. So Stancil went deeper, mapping out a plot, themes and tones, and whom you want as your actors and directors.

Crime dramas and biographical films are over-represented in the Best Picture nominees pool. To reinforce the point that dramas take home the statuette, Stancil found that comedy, science fiction, action, and horror movies all perform horribly in the Best Picture category. Out of about 550 movies of these genres nominated for Oscars of any kind, fewer than 30 were nominated for Best Picture.

No sequels, the Academy hates sequels. The Academy also hates explosion-happy movies by Michael Bay. As for the writing, there is a bias toward adapted screenplays, rather than original scripts. Go figure.

So, in broad strokes, a Best Picture contender a should be a biopic about crime, adapted from a previous work.

Stancil next went a level down, examining the ideal themes, tones and plot elements. The best combination was a bittersweet feeling movie that involved cross-cultural relations. Movies that explore class differences, forbidden love and end with a triumphant flourish also do well in the Best Picture hunt.

The worst possible film if you want the Oscar is a light-toned story that centers on kidnapping (hard to imagine that combo, yes). Evil aliens are non-starters, as are navel-gazing movies about making movies. Trashy is also a no-no, which would explain why the Porky’s oeuvre never made it to the podium.

Mode Analytics

Mode Analytics

Make your picture long. Best Picture nominees are an average of 130 minutes long, and Best Picture winners are an average 142 minutes long. Include some nudity and/or cuss words. Half of all Best Picture nominees are rated R.

Get Daniel Day-Lewis on the phone, and what’s that Hobbit’s name?

Casting is key. You have a better shot at Best Picture if your male leads win Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor than if your female leads take home the statuettes. In other words, Meryl Streep might win an acting Oscar year after year, but the movies she’s in don’t take home the top prize.

John Cazale

John Cazale

The man you want in your film, the king of Best Picture nominations, with a perfect record – five movies made and five movies nominated for Best Picture – is John Cazale. Or was John Cazale. Unfortunately, he died 35 years ago and so isn’t available. Among the living, your best choice for a male lead is either Daniel Day-Lewis or Al Pacino. The women you want in your movie include Ellen Page and Jessica Chastain. If you want to win, never cast Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor (a Scots bias here?), Eddie Murphy, Colin Farrell, or Susan Sarandon. Fine actors all, but never in the winner’s circle.

In a strange bit of Hobbity luck, you might consider Billy Boyd in a supporting role. All four of the Oscar-nominated movies in which Boyd has had parts (all three Lord of the Rings films and Master and Commander) were nominated for Best Picture.

As for directors, you aren’t going to do better than Marty Scorsese, who collects Best Picture nominations like some people collect Magic: The Gathering cards. If Scorsese isn’t available, Stancil’s analysis recommends Norman Jewison (getting on in years though), Ang Lee, or James Brooks.

Get the Weinstein brothers to bankroll and produce your film, and find a good composer. Forty-two percent of films nominated for Best Score received Best Picture nominations. Best Song nominees only entered the Best Picture running 14 percent of time. Which makes some sense if you saw Lion King.

Don’t sweat the costumes. Stancil points out that the overlaps between Best Picture nominees and Best Costumes, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects nominees are among the weakest of any Oscar category.

Coming in Summer 2015: Bullet to the Dark Side

Taking all that data into consideration, Stancil then used an n-gram model to crank through five-decades-worth of Best Picture nominated titles and plot synopses and spit out obvious Oscar bait movies like:

Bullet to the Dark Side
A newlywed couple is cruelly separated, then, after some dramatic struggle, they are reunited in the rugged Afghan mountains.


The story of a ‘50s housewife and a disgraced cop who team up to exact revenge upon her one-time lover.

Hurt Me, the Hidden World
A suicidal former Union soldier ends up joining a Sioux tribe. He then takes up arms to defend them when they somehow become entangled with Russian mobsters in London.


A farmer tries to woo a wealthy uncle, meets and falls for an agnostic Roman soldier who’s somehow made an appearance during WWII. (Makes no sense, but neither did Waterworld).

And the winner is…

So when it comes down to it, what movie does Stancil’s analysis predict will win this year’s Best Picture?

12 Years a Slave,” Stancil says. “It’s a dramatic biopic, adapted from a book, highlighting social injustice, with cross-cultural relationships and crime is central to the plot. Though kidnapping is one of the chief crimes.” Stancil doesn’t want to give away the ending, but it fits the criteria too. “And I liked it,” he says.

There’s that, but Stancil has some thoughts on how 12 Years a Slave could have boosted its chances even further at winning Best Picture. The cast could be improved, Daniel Day-Lewis as a slave owner and Jessica Chastain his wife. “And at only 134 minutes, it’s eight minutes shy of ideal winning length,” Stancil says. “And can you imagine if Scorsese had directed it?”

Slam dunk.

UPDATE: Looks like Scorsese wasn’t needed after all. As Stancil predicted, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Maybe Bullet to the Dark Side actually stands a chance of getting made …

This post originally appeared in Re/Code.