When it comes to gambling, a subjective movie awards show may seem like a crazy target. Film fans everywhere know that the most deserving film, director, or actor does not always end the night clutching that shiny statuette, and with a controversial selection never far away, the show might seem too unpredictable to risk one’s money on. As with most forms of gambling, however, there is a method to the madness.
This is especially true of the Academy Awards, which in recent years has produced an abundance of value for gamblers who risk their money predicting not what should win, but what Academy members will vote for. In spite of the healthy windfall, a correct prediction can be soul destroying when the Academy reverts to type (Green Book in 2018), just as it can be elating when it bows to the winds of change (Moonlight in 2016) or, God forbid, sheer quality and popular opinion (Parasite in 2020). Sometimes it reverts to type while technically getting it right (Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor for The Father in 2021), while other times it can be counted on to go off the wall (Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Actor and Best Editing in 2019). The most satisfying prediction is one born of pure instinct, a gut feeling formed in the cinema that holds up when the film, its competition, and the award itself are put into context, such as Hacksaw Ridge winning Best Film Editing in 2017, beating out heavy favourite La La Land.
From a gambling perspective, the common factor these Oscar winners share is value. None of the nominees were favoured to win their respective categories. Some were not even the second favourite. At the Oscars, this is usually where you find the best odds and the least risk in pursuit of a decent win, though of course it is not as simple as betting on the second or third favourite in any given category. Value is a product not only of the odds, but of context, and that is where calculating the mindset of the Academy comes into play.
Come the evening of March 27th, the latest round of Oscar predictions will run the gauntlet when the curtain goes up on the 94th Academy Awards, celebrating filmmaking in 2021. At first glance there appears to be an increased number of clear cut favourites, which breaks from the trend set during the last five years. This is based on the nominees, the current makeup of the Academy, and the pre-Oscar award show activity, resulting in less high-reward categories than usual. In a world dictated by the Academy, however, the potential for even the thinnest of thin value is always present.
The odds discussed here are taken from Oddschecker and are subject to change following the PGA awards on March 20th.
Our first stop is Best Picture, where Jane Campion’s anti-western Netflix masterpiece The Power of the Dog has been the frontrunner since its release late last year, with Best Picture sitting atop an impressive 12 nominations. Each time it has been nominated for an association equivalent of Best Picture, it has won. As it is the odds-on favourite and likely to go all the way, there is little value in backing it to win. The question is whether there is value in backing the competition. Sian Heder’s CODA has not only received wide critical acclaim, but has snuck up on Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (6/1) to become the main challenger to The Power of the Dog.
Both Belfast and CODA are well-made heartstring-tuggers focused on families coming together during times of strife, but it is the latter that has taken the awards trail by storm. Sitting at 5/1 with most bookies, with some offering as high 10/1, CODA is the logical upset and value bet, especially when the Netflix piece is factored in. The studio has been nominated for Best Picture several times but is yet to win, with high-profile Academy members such as Steven Spielberg actively campaigning against Roma in favour of Green Book in 2018, one of the most embarrassing moments in recent movie history. King Richard (as high as 33/1) and Drive My Car (the actual best film of the year, as high as 66/1) are the longshots worth no more than a buck or two.
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Where The Power of the Dog does appear to have a lock on proceedings is Best Director. Campion deserves her second Oscar and she is currently so far ahead in the market that there is little value in backing any of the other nominees, despite her unfortunate remarks to the Williams sisters at the Critics Choice Awards. Best Supporting Actress is a similar story, with West Side Story‘s Ariana DeBose the comfortable odds-on favourite for her sweeping turn as Anita. The Power of the Dog co-star Kirsten Dunst has some value at 6/1, but at this point it is tough to see past DeBose, who has the opportunity to win the award Rita Moreno won playing the same character 60 years ago, a convenient occurrence the Academy is likely to jump upon. Best Supporting Actor did have a clear favourite in the form of The Power of the Dog’s Kodi Smit-McPhee, but that’s all changed in light of Troy Kotsur winning the SAG award for CODA. The deaf actor has been on the charm offensive throughout the campaign and his heartwarming performance could see him emerge victorious on Sunday night. Smit-McPhee is not out of it at 15/8, but such a dramatic turning of the tide with only a week to go lowers his value significantly.
Best Actor appears to be locked up in favour of King Richard’s Will Smith, though Benedict Cumberbatch is not down and out following his powerhouse display in The Power of the Dog. Cumberbatch’s is without question the “better” performance, and at 6/1 he certainly offers value, but there is a real “it’s time” feeling surrounding Smith’s campaign that will prove difficult to overcome. The Academy has an unfortunate history of ultimately snubbing black actors when putting pen to paper that should not be discounted, but having already won the popularity contest, Smith’s coronation looks set to go ahead uninterrupted.
The final acting category is where things start to heat up. Best Actress – usually a lock – is complete chaos this year. Academy darling Nicole Kidman (4/1) was the longtime frontrunner for Being the Ricardos before Jessica Chastain (8/13) nipped in following her SAG win for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a transformational turn that tends to play well with the Academy. In reality, however, this category is anyone’s game. Olivia Colman (5/1) can do no wrong at the moment and is another popular figure amongst the Academy following her win for The Favourite in 2019. The Lost Daughter is also getting a lot of attention and may sneak an award elsewhere for its writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Spencer,on the other hand has been a tad divisive, and it seems an age since Kristen Stewart’s (6/1) impression of Princess Diana was the talk of the town, with the actor noticeably missing from several key association awards. The Academy loves both an emotional biopic and a comeback story, however, so Stewart still has skin in the game. The most interesting piece of the puzzle is Penelope Cruz, who is currently bringing up the rear, but arguably offers the most real value at 20/1. The Academy is far more diverse than it used to be and international productions (Roma, Parasite, and this year, Drive My Car) have seen a deserved uptick in recognition. Parallel Mothers could see Cruz – already an Oscar winner – benefit from such a swing. At 20/1, a fiver isn’t the worst wager in a category so unpredictable that one bet is as good as another.
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The writing awards are nowhere near as muddled but make for intriguing value propositions. Paul Thomas Anderson has received 10 nominations across his career, but his illustrious name has yet to emerge from that coveted envelope. Though he has little chance of unseating Campion in Best Director, as things stand the Academy is odds-on to finally throw him a bone in Best Original Screenplay for Licorice Pizza. With Belfast (15/8) increasingly unlikely to gain recognition elsewhere, there is a chance Branagh will upset PTA, especially as a screenplay award is usually the Academy’s way of recognising a film without having to break the big five categories. Don’t Look Up is also in the mix and could offer fantastic value. Adam McKay’s climate change black comedy may have split audiences down the middle, but the Academy loves the writer-director and he could sneak in at 14/1. Norwegian favourite The Worst Person in the World is also unlikely at 20/1, but with the aforementioned international representation within the Academy bearing fruit for overseas filmmakers in recent years, Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier are not just there to make up the numbers. Another one that could be worth a small flutter.
The finest script of the year comes in the form of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s melancholy road drama Drive My Car, which is up for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is the category outsider at 25/1, and though it has the hot international hive on its side, it could not be less of a crowd-pleaser compared to the likes of Parasite, and will almost certainly receive its thoroughly deserved award for Best International Feature. The real value here lies with The Lost Daughter (4/1). Jane Campion may be the odds-on favourite for her stirring adaptation of The Power of the Dog, but there is a lot of love out there for both The Lost Daughter and debut writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal. With many Academy members no doubt thinking that Campion has Best Director and likely Best Picture in the bag, they may be inclined to give Gyllenhaal the spotlight here. CODA is floating behind at 7/2, and is riding an immense wave of popularity that cannot be dismissed, but at 4/1 Gyllenhaal makes for a solid bet.
With Denis Villeneuve’s Dune set to dominate the technical categories, only a few slices of thin value remain on table. The first is in Best Film Editing, where Dune was the heavy favourite until King Richard won in the drama category at the Eddies, tightening the race significantly and leaving the bookies uncertain. Dune (evens) is still ahead, but only just, with King Richard now at 3/1 and in the market for a major upset against the sci-fi epic. Both films represent good value here, but only one can win, so it’s a choice between the established frontrunner and the unlikely challenger. King Richard might just pull it off. The same could be said for The Power of the Dog composer Jonny Greenwood (4/1), who is up against cinematic legend and previous Oscar winner Hans Zimmer. The German is odds-on favourite for his pounding, technically astounding Dune score, but Greenwood’s score is stunning, matching Campion’s anti-western sentiments. Greenwood has also been more active on the campaign trail, which gives him a chance, though it is hard to beat out a composer who actually invented new instruments to bring his vision to life.
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Betting on the Oscars has always been about value, and this year is no different. If a pick here has good odds and an upset makes sense, by all means stick some pocket change on it. The whole point is that underdogs and even longshots can and do triumph. But remember, the Oscars is a subjective awards show and the Academy is a known clusterfuck of a voting body. There is no hard data behind this, only theories and convenient context, so please do not risk any more than you are prepared to lose. Enjoy the show, and if a win comes in that covers your beers for the evening, that’ll do just fine.
If you suspect that you might have a gambling addiction, please seek help from your healthcare provider.