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Can big data predict this year’s Oscars (again)?

The company which has successfully predicted the Best Picture Oscar winner in both 2013 and 2014 – by analysing web surfing habits of people with similar demographics to Oscar voters – has released its prediction ahead of Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards.


Digital advertising specialist Exponential predicts Birdman will receive the Best Picture Oscar, narrowly beating The Imitation Game, starring Britain’s Benedict Cumberbatch.

Boyhood, which took the Award for Best Film at the BAFTAs earlier this month, is the third most likely to win, followed by Whiplash, American Sniper and Selma. The Theory of Everything and The Grand Budapest Hotel are the least likely to win by some margin.

How do they do that?

Exponential successfully predicts Oscar winners by using a technique called “look-a-like modelling” which analyses the behaviour of people with similar characteristics to the target group. The Oscars are voted for by Academy Members, who the Los Angeles Times reported, are from a very narrow demographic group – 94% Caucasian, 77% male, with an average age of 62.

By measuring the online behaviour of 32,000 people with these demographics who work in the Los Angeles Film industry, Exponential determines which type of films they’re most likely to prefer and, consequently, the ones Oscar voters are most likely to pick.

“We tracked the behaviour of an online panel we know to be closely representative of Academy Members, to the point of potentially even including some of those members,” explained Bryan Melmed, Exponential’s VP of Insights. “Birdman and The Imitation Game ticked all the boxes among this core group. While the more universal appeal of films like Boyhood and Whiplash is conducive to box-office success, it’s a far more specific demographic that determines critical acclaim.”

Behind the scenes: what the research revealed…

Birdman and The Imitation Game were the most popular choice among wealthier people living in New York or Los Angeles and working in the film industry - key Oscar-voter type demographics.

However, to choose between the two Exponential drilled down to things including online audio-visual shopping behaviour, participation in discussion forums, and cinema ticket and DVD purchasing habits.

For example, people most likely to be researching movie production equipment – such as cameras, video editing systems, lighting – and those who visited the Cannes and Sundance film festivals would be likely to favour Birdman. In contrast, those preferring The Imitation Game are likely to read about film, discuss film online, and buy movie tickets or DVDs.

Melmed comments: “In short, artistic film creators (much like Birdman himself) are far more likely to go for Birdman, while those passionate about film would choose The Imitation Game. Since the Oscars is an insider’s game, not an imitation one, that’s why Birdman will win.”

What if Britons were voting?

Analysing the online behaviour of UK film fans revealed both films being particularly popular in Edinburgh. However, The Imitation Game is predictably most popular in Milton Keynes, where the film is set. UK film-maker types also prefer Birdman as do skaters, extreme sports aficionados and maths students.

However, the arts industry as a whole and the British movie-going public prefer Boyhood – particularly in Scotland. Whiplash was particularly popular among single people and those in artsy Camden.

Fans of The Grand Budapest audience were the youngest and most likely to be female. However, Selma was favoured by younger, educated women. Not surprisingly, viewers of Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, are the most educated audience among the best picture nominees.


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