For the past three years, digital advertising firm Exponential has correctly predicted the winner of the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards using a model built from its treasure chest of big data on consumers.
That would be interesting in most years to film nerds like me. But it’s particularly interesting this year, as the ceremony is engulfed in the #OscarSoWhite controversy that has drawn attention to the lack of diversity in nominees.
Why? While the prediction model is incredibly complex, drawing on thousands of statistically significant behaviors (more on those in a moment), the prediction for Best Picture also comes down to using all that data to make one, sad, stark determination: Which nominee is most preferred by older white males?
Of course, the reason that formula works is because it essentially describes the makeup of the group that nominates and selects the winners of the Oscars each year.
“The resulting profile of the Oscar voter is deep enough to support an hour-long presentation,” Exponential says in its report this year. “We know he (and it is a ‘he’) is a frequent traveler, invests heavily in home theater systems, follows baseball and tennis, is concerned about privacy and Social Security, buys expensive watches, and drives a European luxury car.”
In other words, Straight Outta Compton never stood a chance of getting a nomination.
You can see Exponential’s predictions for the three years it has done this modeling here, here and here. And in case you’re curious, I’m purposely holding off on revealing their prediction for this year until further down, just in case you don’t want to see a spoiler. (If a prediction can be considered a “spoiler.”)
Of course, if Exponential is wrong, then the company hypothesizes that voter behavior was possibly affected by the controversy. On the other hand, the slate of eight nominated films are each whiter-than-rice in their own way. So it could be hard to know for sure where the model went wrong.
In any case, here’s a quick breakdown of the profile of each film and who it appeals to in terms of consumer behaviors, according to Exponential:
Brooklyn: This mediocre snoozefest is set in the 1950s and features lots of famous people speaking in phony Irish accents. According to Exponential, Brooklyn has the oldest audience among the nominees, with an average age of 67, and also the “most prominently Caucasian” audience. The problem is that this audience doesn’t like film that much and would prefer to watch PBS or the BBC. In fact, they are 80 times more likely to watch Downton Abbey than the average person.
Bridge of Spies: Another mediocre snoozefest, this time set in the 1960s, it stars Tom Hanks as “Tom Hanks,” uttering tons of obvious lines about freedom and liberty. And it was directed by Steven Spielberg, which used to matter. The problem, according to Exponential, is that fans of this movie are interested in the armed forces, support lower taxes, want a freeze on immigration, are “13 times more likely to have considered emergency preparedness,” and are more likely to cook red meat at home than eat at a restaurant. In other words, they are not Hollywood liberals.
The Martian: This eminently predictable film stars Matt Damon as “Matt Damon” and ends exactly they way you knew it would the moment you saw the first trailer. People who like this movie are quite likely to be looking for an apartment to rent or installing solar panels on their home, have a lot of graduate degrees, and work in higher education or IT. In other words, they are too smart to be Oscar voters.
Mad Max: A relentless two hours of car chases through the desert by post-apocalyptic refugees who can’t seem to find food and water and gasoline but have amassed a bottomless supply of leather outerwear. Basically, these fans include a lot of fussy architects and contractors who drive Subarus and Mazdas but would rather be at a music festival (dressed, no doubt, in copious amounts of leather!). In other words, they are people willing to ignore the film’s lack of anything resembling a plot because it’s neat to look at. Side note: Also most likely to support Donald Trump!
The Revenant: This 2.5-hour orgy of male torture porn is the cinematic equivalent of lying in bed while someone places a pillow over your face and slowly smothers you to death. People who like this are “too conservative,” according to Exponential. They are religious, likely to listen to Glenn Beck, are number two on the Trump-support list, and are likely to drink bourbon and go hunting, own a truck or SUV, have a power saw, and work in law enforcement.
Room: The main character is a woman, and this is the favorite among women. Two strikes and you’re out, Oscar-wise. Also, as Exponential notes of this film’s fans: “This is also the wealthiest and most charitable audience, a pattern we do not find among Oscar voters.”
Spotlight vs. The Big Short: This is where it gets tough. And as you’ve probably figured out by now, (unless you have the intelligence of someone who liked The Revenant), the previous six are not the predicted winners.
One of these movies is about crusading white reporters who remind people that newspapers used to be a thing and that they mattered. The other is about a bunch of white guys who get wealthy while reminding people that big banks are crooked and the financial system is rigged against the little guy.
So it comes down to two movies with very similar profiles consumer-wise. According to Exponential, the fans of these movies share “95 percent of the 10,116 behavioral indicators we have identified.” I bet you didn’t even know that humans have more than 10,000 behaviors!
So which one does Exponential favor?
The Big Short.
Why? Men love it, and it’s the movie most preferred by Caucasians, after Brooklyn (which has too many other factors that rule it out). The Big Short is also super popular in Los Angeles and New York City, which, as we all know, are the only two places that really matter in the U.S. The rest of the country is pretty much just scrub brush and trailer parks at this point.
Also, Big Short fans match most of the Academy behavior profiles mentioned above, with a few minor tweaks: They like basketball more than baseball, and they prefer luxury cars from Asia to those from Europe.
So, there you have it. If Big Short wins this weekend, (and frankly, even if Spotlight wins), it’ll be directly attributable to the overall racial makeup of Hollywood and the Academy. Yes, we pretty much knew that already. But it’s never much fun to have your worst suspicions confirmed.