And The Winner Is … Those Interested In Betting On Academy Awards

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Parasite beat 1917 for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony in an upset that might be comparable to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning this year’s Super Bowl, but no one’s expecting any such surprise at Sunday night’s Oscars.

Indiana is one of the few states allowing its sportsbooks to take wagers on the film awards, and not all operators are inclined to take advantage of the chance. The awards show is like a minor sport rather than attracting anywhere near NFL-level betting interest.

But based on the odds posted by DraftKings and BetMGM, the two major operators listing wide options, a loss by Nomadland this weekend in the Best Picture category might be akin to the Baltimore Colts getting knocked off by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.

The celebrated indy drama about hourly wage workers on America’s fringes is listed -650 by BetMGM and -670 by DraftKings to win the night’s most prestigious award.

It might have had a tougher time standing out in other years, but COVID-19 wrecked film production and moviegoers’ habits as much as anything in society in 2020. The number of big-budget movies released and opportunities to put eyeballs on them in theaters were vastly reduced.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean people with the chance to bet on the awards are any less likely to do so, said Johnny Avello, Draftkings sportsbook director.

“It’s a different type of betting entity — you get people who may not be such sports bettors but like to bet on this,” particularly women, Avello noted. “It’s true that movies weren’t out as much and people weren’t able to get out, but people did a lot of [home]  viewing this year. And this takes place on a Sunday night when there’s not a whole lot else going on — maybe just a couple of basketball games.”

It’s Nomadland against the field

Nomadland leads a cast of eight films nominated for Best Picture, with the rest deemed longshots anywhere from +550 (The Trial of the Chicago 7 at BetMGM) to +10000 (The Father at DraftKings).

If you saw Nomadland, it was probably by livestreaming on Amazon, which is also how most viewers would have seen the other major nominees, whether by Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu. Nomadland has pretty much run the table in all of the awards competitions that foreshadow the Oscars, including the Golden Globes, Producers Guild Awards, and British Academy Film Awards.

Still, not everyone betting is willing to invest in a favorite that would provide such a modest payoff. DraftKings, which posted odds in New Jersey and Michigan as well as Indiana, reported that Nomadland has received only 8% of the bets and 16% of the handle in wagering on Best Picture.

By comparison, Minari, a less seen (but highly popular among those who did) film about a Korean family’s adjustment to life in rural Arkansas, has drawn 28% of the bets and 37% of the handle at DraftKings. The site lists Oscar chances for Minari at +1400, which is third after Nomadland and The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s docudrama relating to the events and aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The Best Picture category is not the only one where there is a heavy favorite, and a lot of people may be hoping for any surprise that can make the evening more interesting — as well as potentially profitable.

“The current odds suggest we know the winners of the major awards, and the intended recipients should start preparing their acceptance speeches,” said Darren Darby, a sports trader for BetMGM. “But most years there is a surprise upset, so no bet is a lock. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Trial of the Chicago 7 beat Nomadland for the Best Picture Award.”

Best Actress has the best intrigue

The most competitive of the major categories, with the most betting uncertainty going into Sunday night, is the Best Actress Award.

Here is how odds were listed as of Thursday for Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Frances McDormand (Nomadland), Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), and Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman):

ActressDraftKings oddsBetMGM odds
Carey Mulligan+125+135
Viola Davis+200+200
Frances McDormand+400+400
Andra Day+600+500
Vanessa Kirby+2000+2500

Unlike in most other categories, no clear consensus has emerged in prior awards competitions. While Mulligan is listed with the best odds, Day won a Golden Globe, Davis was chosen by the Screen Actors Guild, and McDormand got the BAFTA award. Other than Kirby, no name might be shocking when this winner is announced near the end of the telecast.

“Carey Mulligan’s taken the most money with us, but that’s a category where you might see an upset,” Avello said. “I wouldn’t count out Viola Davis or Andra Day — I think there’s plenty of value on Andra Day at 6/1.”

While McDormand was acclaimed for her lead role in the expected Best Picture winner, she already has two Best Actress Oscars, the most recent just three years ago.

Davis already has an Oscar herself, but it was for Best Supporting Actress in Fences in a role that easily could have qualified for the Best Actress category.

British actress Mulligan won this year’s award from the National Board of Review for her role in a thriller — still mostly unseen in the U.S. — about a woman seeking revenge on a man who raped her best friend. It would be her first Oscar if she wins.

The late Boseman is expected to be honored

Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer last August at age 43, isn’t facing the same sort of uncertainty as a favorite to be posthumously awarded Best Actor.

His performance as an aggressive, driven trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been universally lauded. His odds are pegged at -1667 from DraftKings and -1200 from BetMGM.

If anyone could pull off an upset, it could be the revered 83-year-old British actor Anthony Hopkins for The Father. He played a man battling dementia, a role quite different from the one as a cannibalistic serial killer that earned him his prior Oscar. His chances this time are listed at +700 by DraftKings and +600 by BetMGM.

A runaway for Supporting Actor

An even bigger favorite than Boseman comes in the Supporting Actor category: Daniel Kaluuya, portraying former Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, is listed at -2500 by DraftKings and -3000 by BetMGM.

His closest competitor is Sacha Baron Cohen from The Trial of the Chicago 7, at +1200 from DraftKings and +1400 from BetMGM.

If this were real sports, there would be a point spread or over/under or some other manner of balancing things out. Such things don’t exist in the world of acting awards though — you either win or you don’t, both as a performer and bettor.

Korean actress also a heavy favorite

Youn Yuh-jung might be classified as the kid out of nowhere when it comes to the Oscars, if not for the fact that she’s 73. She’s been known to South Korean audiences for decades, and now she’s a runaway favorite for Best Supporting Actress for playing a grandmother immigrating late in life to America in Minari.

She is listed -500 at DraftKings and -450 at BetMGM, so not quite the sure thing Kaluuya is, but still, anyone else would be a stunner.

Deemed most likely of those who could stun is Maria Bakalova, another newcomer to American film. The young Bulgarian stole the comedic show as Borat’s daughter in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. She is priced at +375 to pull off an upset by DraftKings and +450 by BetMGM.

And there’s all those other awards

DraftKings also posts odds for the awards even film buffs pay less attention to earlier in the show, many of which also have heavy favorites: Soul is -5000 for Best Animated Feature and My Octopus is -500 for Best Documentary.

The Best Picture and acting categories tend to attract most of the betting, but students of film and wagering might be able to look down the long list of lesser-celebrated categories (makeup & costume design, documentary short subject, etc.) and find what they consider an edge.

“People that know the business a little may find some value in those areas,” Avello said.

Just don’t expect to make millions off it. Avello said betting limits are generally set at $1,000, due to concerns from regulators. Unlike sports played on the field, after all, it’s a competition in which a winner has been predetermined by voting, even if it is kept secret from the public.

Because a few people knowing the results in advance could seek to profit from it, the Michigan Gaming Control Board told sportsbooks to cease taking bets after voting concluded Tuesday. In Indiana, as in New Jersey, such decisions are left up to the operators, and Avello doesn’t share the Michigan regulators’ concerns.

“I understand they want to be safe, but whoever the accounting firm is — Price Waterhouse or whomever — there’s very few people who know [the voting results] and they don’t want that to leak out,” he said. “It’s a big event where they want everyone to know the winner at the same time. Hopefully, Michigan will reconsider that in the future.”

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at gary@usbets.com.

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