There’s much fun to be had in arguing about who should win an Academy Award. “Joker” or “Little Women” for Best Picture? Quentin Tarantino or Bong Joon-ho for Best Director? The arguments are endless.
But Ben Zauzmer has a different question in mind: Who will win? And it’s one he answers correctly, just about every time.
Zauzmer, 27, a Dresher native, is a Harvard University graduate and a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since he was an undergrad, he’s been developing an algorithm to predict each year’s Oscar winners. Last fall, he even released a book on the subject: “Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood.”
How would you describe your “Oscarmetrics” project?
In a nutshell, I use math to answer questions about the Oscars. Most notably, I predict each year’s Academy Awards using data and statistics. But I also write articles exploring all sorts of questions about the Oscars through a mathematical lens, and I recently wrote a book called “Oscarmetrics” to tell stories about the Oscars and classic cinema via math.
How did you come to start analyzing the Oscars in this way?
This all began in the months leading up to the 2012 Oscars, during my freshman year of college. I am an avid follower of statisticians who use data to predict other fields like baseball and politics. Being a movie fan as well, I assumed that someone must have done the same for the Oscars. But when I went to Google and couldn’t find any such predictions, I decided to try it myself. I spent a month in the library gathering data and building models, then put my predictions up online and this whole project has blossomed from there.
When did it become apparent that people were really starting to pay attention to this? And what was that like?
My very first year, I began to get press coverage from around the world. I was predicting the Oscars in a novel way, and people were very curious to know what the predictions said (that year, the math correctly identified “The Artist” as the favorite to win Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and got a very close Best Actress race that Meryl Streep won for “The Iron Lady”). But this work really took off in my junior year of college, when The Hollywood Reporter invited me to begin writing for them, a relationship that continues to this day. Since then, I’ve done TV, radio and print interviews for publications across the globe, and written additional freelance articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post and others.
How would you compare the challenges of your Oscarmetrics work to those of your work for the Dodgers?
Baseball statistics can be challenging because of how much data there is; Oscar statistics can be challenging because of how little data there is. In baseball, a single game provides more data than all of Oscar history. So the challenge in my day job is finding the signal, the part of the data that has a pattern, or tells a story, or helps us to make a better decision. With the Oscars, the challenge is to build models that don’t overreact to small amounts of data.
Do you feel that there is an overlap between your work as a mathematician and your life as a Jewish person?
Something I love about both mathematics and Judaism is how rational they are. The arguments in the Talmud for why Jews follow certain practices are often very lawyer-like, very rational and very mathematical. We as Jews and we as mathematicians are always encouraged to ask “why?” We want to engage in the discussion and learn for ourselves why something is the best practice. And in both subjects, we rely on the wisdom of teachers who have already studied these questions to help guide us along, and then we are free to agree or to find alternative rational arguments that make more sense.
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