And the Academy Award Goes to…Math
Viola Davis or Meryl Streep? In 2012, only one could win the Academy Award for best actress, but which one? Ben Zauzmer ’15 picked Streep. His reputation hinged on the result.
A freshman at the time, he had—like countless others—chosen a slate of Oscars winners. But his selection method stood out. Instead of working off the results of the Golden Globes, picking his personal favorites, or just going with his gut, Zauzmer did the math.
After poring through troves of movie data and constructing predictive formulas for each award, he posted his mathematical favorites on a WordPress site, which quickly grew popular online. “It had Oscars, it had Harvard. It had things that make the news,” he says. “I was doing interviews and getting covered. The pressure was on.” He raised the stakes himself, advertising his live Oscars-viewing party to the entire freshman class. As fellow first-years flocked to that gathering in the Straus Common Room, they received copies of his selections.
Zauzmer nailed nine of the first 14 awards—a respectable, but unexceptional rate—but he knew his perceived success revolved around the Best Actress category. In the weeks before the awards ceremony, critics had started to coalesce around Davis, but Zauzmer’s predictions gave a slight edge to Streep. As the bigger awards were announced, he began to hit his stride. He predicted both screenplay awards, Best Actor, and Best Director. Then came the big moment. The party’s crowd quieted as Colin Firth opened the envelope containing the Academy-selected Best Actress: Meryl Streep. His classmates cheered. “I’m quite sure she was the happiest person in the world,” he writes in his recent book Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood. “But I may have been second.”
Zauzmer’s love of math goes back further than he can remember. “My mother tells me I’ve had a hankering for numbers since I was in diapers,” he says. “I can’t recall or verify, but I believe her.” His first mathematics success story came a bit later—in sixth grade, the first year he was eligible to take his middle school’s placement test for Math Counts, a nationwide middle-school math competition.
The morning after the test, the PA system broadcast the names of the eight highest scorers. He had made the team. “That was one of the first moments where I knew that this was something that I should continue pursuing….It was a really exciting moment for me.
Years of math competition dominance followed, first with Math Counts, then through the American Regional Mathematics League. On weekends, his parents drove him roughly an hour from their home in Dresher, Pennsylvania, to Lehigh University, where he and his teammates worked on speed, competition strategy, and depth of knowledge. He captained the team from eighth grade through senior year; they won the national championship in each of his last three years, vanquishing rivals from prep schools across the country. “Every round was intense and exciting,” he says. “For me, it was just as much about the thrill of the competition as it was about trying to solve the math problem.”
By the time he arrived at Harvard in 2011, Zauzmer knew he’d likely concentrate in math or applied math (eventually taking the applied route). On breaks from school, when he had a bit more time, he found some time to explore another interest: movies. “I was on a pretty late schedule, being a college kid, and I would often stay up late past the rest of my family and watch a movie,” he recalls. “I was able to very quickly get through the American Film Institute’s Top 100, every Best Picture winner, and so on. And that’s where this interest really started to blossom.”
In the runup to the 2012 Oscars, he was studying in the empty forum at the Kennedy School when his mind began to wander. He loved reading mathematical baseball and political predictions, and thought surely someone had done the same for the Oscars. When he couldn’t find anything, he decided to do it himself. “I basically camped out for a month in Lamont Library,” he says: “found a really comfy chair right in the middle of the third floor, and gathered as much data as I possibly could.”
He found that some factors often considered important to Oscars predictors weren’t really that significant. A movie’s box-office numbers, which he had assumed would carry weight, had little predictive value. Much more significant were the results of the individual guild awards leading up to the Academy Awards, like those for writers, screen actors, and producers. While the guild-award voters don’t line up exactly with Oscar voters, he says, there’s enough overlap that these specialized award shows serve as an “early warning sign.”
In his “Oscarmetrics” model, each award prediction receives individual treatment. For one Oscar, the most important factor might be the corresponding guild award. In another, a movie’s aggregated score on the site Rotten Tomatoes may hold sway. People often ask him what the single best predictor is across the board, and his answer, as of now, is the British Academy Film Awards (the BAFTAs)—the Oscars’ British equivalent. But his models pull from less publicized sources, too. “The Critics Circle in Phoenix goes back a ways and has done a reasonably good job,” Zauzmer explains. So have the equivalents in St. Louis and Dallas. “The more prominent ones in New York and Los Angeles actually don’t do as good a job….They might be more comfortable going their own way.”
Of course, he admits, mathematical predictions are imperfect. If there’s a late-breaking news story that may make Academy voters shift their views, he says that human intuition does a much better job than a computer. He speculates, for example, that the Russian doping film Icarus might have seen its “Best Documentary” odds increase due to the Oscars’ proximity to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Still, his picks overall hit at a rate of 77 percent—comparable to other expert predictions.
Zauzmer stresses that his analyses don’t judge movie quality. “You can’t use math to say what was truly the best movie of the year,” he says. “That’s not what I’m trying to do.” He’s trying to predict how a group of voters will most likely behave. “The math this year might pick 1917 to win Best Picture. That doesn’t mean I’ve proven it was the best-made movie of the year.”
As Oscars season comes to a close, Zauzmer’s job as manager of baseball analytics for the Los Angeles Dodgers will kick back into gear. But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop watching, or ranking, movies. “This will not shock you,” he says. “I actually keep a full top 100 on my computer.”