Oscar Voting: How The Academy Selects Its Best Picture Winner

By Tom O’Neil, Gold Derby The process that decides which films get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars is not as simple as you might imagine. Academy members don’t merely cite their favorite films on a blank ballot that they ship to the accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers. No, they rank movies on a preferential ballot that’s so complicated it’s difficult to explain. But let’s try. Voting for Oscar nominations began last Monday (December 17) and runs till Thursday, January 3. This year, the academy is allowing members to cast their ballots electronically as well as by mail. To ensure that all members are able to participate, the academy mailed paper ballots to all those who had not registered to vote online. All Academy members can pick up to five films for Best Picture and also nominate contenders in those races covered by their respective branches. While nominees in most of the other races will be determined by the traditional system of preferential ballot that winnows the pool down to a final five, the Best Picture finalists will be arrived at by a separate system of tabulation. There will be between five and 10 nominees for Best Picture. To reap a bid, a film has to be one of the top choices of at least five percent of the members taking part in the nomination phase. To illustrate how this system works, let’s look at last year’s race when there ended up being nine nominees. Oscar nomination ballots for Best Picture were sent to the 5,783 members of the Academy with instructions to list up to five films. Let’s assume that 80 percent of members submitted their ballots; that would make for 4,626 ballots in all and five percent of this total is 232 votes. There are three ways to get to our magic number of 232: be listed first on a ballot; be listed second on a ballot with a film in first place so popular it triggers the surplus rule; or be listed second on a ballot with a film in first place that is tops with less than one percent of voters. Ballots are sorted by the first choice and only those films listed at the top of at least one ballot remain in play. The maximum number of Best Picture contenders is 10. In our scenario, the initial threshold for a nomination is set at 421 votes (4,626 divided by 11 and rounded up). If each of 10 films reached this cut-off, they would account for 4,210 ballots, making it mathematically impossible for an eleventh film to get 421 first place votes. The surplus rule is applied to all films that are listed first on at least 10 percent more ballots than the initial threshold required for a nomination. (For other categories, the trigger is 20 percent). The rationale for this rule is so that someone can vote for a hugely popular picture without fear that their ballot doesn’t matter. In our scenario — where the threhold is 421 votes — the surplus rule would apply to those films which received at least 463 first place votes. Each of these ballots is apportioned as follows: a share goes to the first place film such that it reaches the initial nomination threshold and the remaining share goes to the second place film if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film on the list that is still in play). Of our 30 Experts last year who were predicting the Oscars, 24 had “The Artist” in first place. Let’s assume it was tops on 15 percent of the ballots returned; that would give it 694 first place votes. It only needed 421 first place votes to reach the initial threshold so each ballot was apportioned with .61 of the vote going to “The Artist” and .39 to the second place film if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film listed which is still in play). Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 273 ballots in all. Three of our Experts ranked “The Descendants” in first place. Let’s assume it made the grade with 12 percent of the voters; that would give it 555 first place votes. That total also triggered the surplus rule with .76 of the vote going to “The Descendants” and .24 to the second place film if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film listed which is still in play). Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 134 ballots in all. Which films were likely to be listed second on those ballots that trigger the surplus rule? Did members who love “The Artist” like “Midnight in Paris” almost as much? Were those fans of “The Descendants” also enamored with “Moneyball”? Those films listed in first on less than one percent of the ballots (in our scenario, that would be 46 ballots) are out of the running. These ballots are redistributed to the next film listed which is still in play (i.e. they will not be shifted to other films with less than one percent support found lower down on these ballots). The counting is over at this point and all those films with at least five percent of the total ballots cast (in our scenario, 232 ballots) were the Best Picture nominees. Among them, our 30 Experts were predicting 21 different films to be nominated for Best Picture. Of those with deep support, “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “The Help” make the grade with all of our Experts while “Hugo” got 29 votes and “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball” and “War Horse” each earned 28 votes. All seven of these films ended up reaping Best Picture nominations. That left, at best, three slots open. “The Tree of Life” was predicted by 22 of our Experts to contend. While it was snubbed by the PGA, it had significant critical support. It cobbled together the five percent needed for a nod by a combination of first place votes and second place positioning behind films that triggered either the surplus or minimal rule. The surprise nominee was “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” which also reached the requisite five percent threshold. Which films will make it into the final 10 this year? We’ll find out, when the Academy announces the nominations on January 10, 2013.

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