Arts & Entertainment

The 4 biggest Best Picture Oscar upsets, statistically speaking

The cast of <em>Crash</em> celebrates after its surprise upset of <em>Brokeback Mountain</em> for best picture, at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.
The cast of Crash celebrates after its surprise upset of Brokeback Mountain for best picture, at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

By the time the curtains rise on the Academy Awards ceremony each year, Oscar-watching prognosticators are already reasonably sure which films are going to take home top prizes.

Their predictions are mostly driven by frenzied intra-industry campaigning, prolific press coverage and the closest approximation of Oscar "polls" — the winners of the dozens of awards that precede the Oscars each year. But of the 16 preceding awards analyzed by The New York Times ' political statistician Nate Silver, only two — the Directors Guild Awards and the Producers Guild Awards — have a greater than 50 percent success rate in predicting eventual Oscar winners. (The Directors Guild aligns with Oscar eight out of 10 times.) "Directors and producers are the movers and shakers in Hollywood, and any evidence about their opinions ought to count for a lot," Silver writes.

And their guilds are packed with Academy voters, so it makes sense that major category winners tend to match. In fact, when we analyzed the data, only four times since the Directors and Producers Guild Awards have existed have their top film picks of the year awards not overlapped with the Academy's best picture winner.

That kind of track record makes for stunning upsets on Oscar night.

RELATED: KPCC's coverage of the Academy Awards

With the help of film critic Chris Vognar of The Dallas Morning News , we took a look back at the biggest upsets, or to put a more positive spin on it, biggest surprise wins in the best picture category:

1981: 'Chariots Of Fire' Upsets 'Reds'

Cue the Chariots of Fire theme song, as Reds was seen as a juggernaut when the Oscars ceremony took place in March 1982. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, including every acting category. "Chariots was the little film that could, an underdog about underdogs," says film critic Chris Vognar. "I was actually very happy when it won."

1995: 'Braveheart' Beats Out 'Apollo 13'

The data show this as an "upset" because the producers and directors had picked Apollo 13 as their top film of 1995. But it's likely the least surprising win on this list. "Braveheart came out well before Mel Gibson began his series of ranting public breakdowns, and there was a sense of wanting to honor him for his body of work," says Vognar. "And every now and then Hollywood likes to honor the kind of prestigious blood-soaked epic it once churned out so regularly. (See also: Gladiator)."

1998: 'Shakespeare In Love' Over 'Saving Private Ryan'

Saving Private Ryan had all the ingredients to win a best picture Oscar: Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a World War II epic at the height of the "greatest generation" nostalgia. But it lost out to a romantic comedy from awards season supercampaigner Harvey Weinstein's studio. "AfterShakespeare won, people really started paying attention to the Weinstein Oscar campaigning machine, which is still widely credited for the upset," says Vognar. "I remember this one well because I was in the Oscar press room when we all had tear up our Saving Private Ryan leads when it didn't win."

2005: 'Crash' Stuns 'Brokeback Mountain'

Brokeback Mountain and its director, Ang Lee, were picking up every major award that season. Lee had just won the directing Oscar that night, so when presenter Jack Nicholson opened up the best picture envelope and saw Crashwritten on the card, he raised his famous eyebrows and muttered, "Wow." Looking back, Vognar says: "I still think Crash is an average movie that happened to tap into something in the Hollywood zeitgeist. I gave it a B grade when I reviewed it, and I'd probably do the same today."

Come Sunday night, don't expect a stunner for Best Picture, says Joel Windels of Brandwatch,a social media monitoring company: "The critics and public have decided. I mean, Argo is going to win."

Perhaps most importantly, the producers and directors guilds have picked Argo. And as this short list proves, they're almost never wrong.