Editor's Note: Zauzmer's predictions for this year's Academy Awards were published Saturday in The Hollywood Reporter. This story has been updated to include them.
Ben Zauzmer is the Mets’ director of baseball analytics. He won a World Series ring with the Dodgers last year. But when strangers recognize him, they do not cite his day job.
“Oh,” they say. “You’re the Oscars guy.”
Zauzmer’s first love is baseball. His second is movies. And when he was a Harvard undergraduate, he realized his applied-math courses could help him with both. In 2012, his freshman year of college, he developed a model to project which films would succeed at the Academy Awards.
Some 15,000 people follow Zauzmer on Twitter. They are not there expecting to hear about the New York Nine; instead they pester him for his predictions about The Trial of the Chicago 7. (He expects it to win Best Film Editing at the 93rd Academy Awards, delayed by the pandemic and rescheduled for Sunday.)
He keeps his worlds largely separate. He cannot remember a single conversation with a player about movies, and his 2019 book, Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood, does not mention his job anywhere.
That does not stop his front-office colleagues from occasionally giving him grief. In 2018, when his model went 20-for-21, the one was Best Documentary, which Icarus won. His boss with the Dodgers, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, jokingly encouraged Zauzmer to shoot for a higher hit rate at work.
The factor that has surprised Zauzmer most over his years of work, he says, is how little Twitter gets right. (This can also be a useful observation as it relates to baseball.) “It just has no bearing whatsoever,” he says.
He sees some similarities between his fields. He says, “[I’m] trying to take data from a well-known and beloved source of entertainment—in one case, baseball, and in one case, movies—and using them not only to make predictions but also to take statistical concepts and try to explain them in a way that is fun and entertaining and engaging and can lead to great discussions with people who have both statistics backgrounds and also backgrounds in that domain, whether it’s baseball or movies, and trying to bridge that gap.”
The biggest difference is the amount of data. “There’s no baseball-reference.com for the Oscars,” he points out, so initially he spent hours in the Harvard library, poring over PDFs of press releases from decades earlier, trying to compile a database. For the most part, his model uses other awards ceremonies—some big-name events, such as the Golden Globes, along with some more niche ones, such as the Cinema Audio Society Awards—but he also tracks betting markets and aggregated critics’ scores. All these figures combined, running back nearly a century, provide less information than does a single baseball game, so he is always at risk of making assumptions based on small collections of data.
“In 1,000 years, we’ll have better Oscars samples,” he says. “Unfortunately I don't know that I'll still be predicting them then.”
In the meantime, he ran Sports Illustrated through three of the most common questions baseball analysts face and how they apply to movie analytics.
Can a movie be clutch?
“Clutch is hard to define only because I would define clutch as: You perform better when it matters most, and we only get one matters-most moment a year with the Oscars,” he says. “And so by that definition, you would say any Oscar winner is clutch because it came up big when it really mattered. So that’s harder to define with just once ever. But upsets, sure. We see that plenty. Even just looking at the Best Picture category, we've had Moonlight and Spotlight and Crash and Braveheart. Shakespeare in Love was debatably an upset. And I could see it again this year: Nomadland is going to be the favorite, but there’s seven other movies.”
What is the secret sauce that makes a regular-season movie into an Oscars contender?
“There are certain types of movies we see that definitely tend to perform above and beyond at the Oscars,” he says. “If you’ve watched all eight of this year’s Best Picture nominees, you might have found yourself pretty down. There’s not a lot of fun in this year’s nominees. Even the ones that do have some comedy also have a real sense of sadness behind them as well. And that’s not a coincidence. We’ve definitely seen more and more over the past couple decades a lot of these less popular, artsier, serious-type movies are being lauded by the Academy Awards.”
What about the human element?
“There’s always going to be things that the data-only approach will miss,” he says. “I stick to the data-only side on the Oscars because that’s my gimmick, that's my shtick, and I enjoy it and it’s fun, but at the same time, I fully recognize that movies are an art form and therefore, predicting them is an art form. I think the exact same thing is true in baseball, and so it’s important when making predictions in either domain to have a certain degree of humility.”
So well-known is Zauzmer for his Oscars insight that The Hollywood Reporter publishes his predictions. His picks for this year's Academy Awards were published Saturday. He wrote an analysis piece Wednesday for The New York Times about what happens when two costars compete for the same award, as is the case this year for Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, the actors playing Judas and the Black Messiah's two titular characters. He has seen all of this year's Best Picture nominees and says his favorite of the contenders (though not his pick to win) is Promising Young Woman. Instead, his model predicts Emerald Fennell’s revenge thriller/comedy starring Carey Mulligan has a 7.4% chance of winning Best Picture, behind Nomadland and The Trial of the Chicago 7. His projections, though, give Mulligan the slight edge to win her first Academy Award over two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand for Best Actress.
When 8 p.m. ET on Sunday rolls around, Zauzmer will be ensconced in his living room, with hundreds of draft tweets ready to go. (In March, when the nominees were announced, he shared 93 pieces of trivia, one for each year of the event.) He will answer messages about his predictions. He will track the success of his model. In short, it will be an exhausting evening. Fortunately for him, the Mets have a day game.
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