A Nerd’s Guide to Oscar Voting


By Chris Chan (@GKCfan)
By now, the 2017 Oscars have been thoroughly discussed by everybody with an interest in awards and movies.  The big subject for debate and exploration was the mix-up over the Best Picture announcement.  Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway declared that La La Land was the winner, and the La La Land producers gave their acceptance speeches, only to reveal that there’d been a mistake, and that Moonlight was the actual winner.
After hearing and reading the responses of many ordinary movie fans and professional pundits, it becomes clear that a large number of people seem to be completely unaware of the fact that the process of voting for the Best Picture Oscar is a lot more complex than most people understand.  Despite the glitz, glamour, and politicking that go into the Oscar race, the Best Picture Oscar is dependent on math– and perhaps some manipulative strategy.
For some decades, there were only five Best Picture nominees, and Academy members voted for a single candidate and the movie with the most votes won.  Since the full results of Oscar voting are never released, the number of votes earned by the runners-up are known only to the tabulators, and the general public never knew if the victor triumphed by an overwhelming majority or by a single vote.  Whether one or two films dominated at the ballot box or if the support was widely distributed forever remains a mystery.
Several years ago, after the Academy opened the Best Picture nominees slots up to ten pictures (the rules were later amended to allow anywhere from five to ten nominees, depending on the results on a long and complicated voting process), and because theoretically with more nominees, the more theoretically possible it is for a movie to win with only a small percentage of the votes– under certain (admittedly unlikely) circumstances, a movie could win Best Picture out of ten nominees and over eighty-nine percent of Academy voters could have hated the film.
That’s one of the reasons why the Oscars switched to a “ranked” or “preferential” system of voting for Best Picture (other Oscar categories still rely on a “vote for your favorite, most votes win” model).  On the Oscar ballot, voters are expected to rank all of the nominated movies.  If ten movies are nominated, the voter’s preferred film receives the “1” ranking, and the least liked movie gets the “10.”  (These numbers of course change depending on the number of nominees).  In order to win the Best Picture Oscar, a movie has to get more than half of the first-place votes.  If a minimum 3,001 of 6,000 submitted ballots rank the same movie as “1,” that film is the winner.  In the far more probable contingency that no film triumphs in the first round of ballot tabulating, the movie that got the fewest number of “1” rankings is disqualified, and the ballots assigned to the newly eliminated movie are divided amongst the other nominees based on the “2” designations.  If no film has enough to win, then the next least-popular movie is no longer a contender, and its ballots are reassigned to the other movies based on the “3” votes.  This process continues until one movie reaches the “50% + 1” mark.
Are you confused?  Actually, the rules can get a lot more complicated, because a lot of people don’t understand how the voting works.  Apparently a significant number of voters only list their first or second choice, and leave the other slots blank.  Ballots that aren’t fully filled in lead to disqualifications in later rounds of tabulating, which can bring down the necessary number of votes needed to win.  If a ballot’s top-ranked films are disqualified, the redistributed ballot goes to the highest-ranked movie still in contention on the ballot.  There are so many contingencies available for ranking the votes that readers might be excused for needing Dramamine to figure out how a movie wins.
Ideally, this system of voting is expected to provide a level of consensus– Even if only a minority of the voters think that a certain movie is the best of the year, the preferential ballot assures that most Academy voters thought the movie was at least one of the year’s finest.  Of course, this also leads to the possibility that a movie with a strong plurality of initial “1” rankings” can lose in favor of another film.  It’s possible that the movie that a lot of voters thought was only the third or fourth-best movie of the year could take home the prize.
Every year, there are some nominees that may deserve their Best Picture nomination, but have very little chance of winning.  For savvy Oscar campaigners, it may not be enough to court voters to rank your film “1.”  Some campaigns might target fans of movies that will probably ranked last or next-to-last in the first round of voting, and attempt to convince them to rank their candidates as “2,” and to place their chief rivals in the lowest slots. 
There is a rather uncouth aspect to this new system of voting.  By ranking all of the nominated movies, voters essentially declare which film they believe is the “worst of the Best Picture” nominees.  “Hate-voting” can come into play, although attempts by the top-ranked movies to sabotage their rivals are essentially blocked by the nature of the voting system.  With a “one vote, film with the most votes wins” system, one picks the movie one likes the most, and one expresses no opinion on the other nominees.  A “love it or hate it” movie could win under the old system with a substantial plurality, but with the preferential ballot, the divisive movie could lose to a film with broader support.
This is a complex system, and by no means a perfect one.  A lot of voters don’t understand the intricacies of the system, which leads to less than complete consensus over how to rank the films.  Furthermore, the opinions of people who liked the less popular can have inflated importance over people who supported the most initially popular films.  The ranking and tabulating system may rely on the arbitrary decision-making that goes into assigning a number for a film.   The more complex the system is, the more likely it is for human error to play a role– after all, the tabulators made a mistake in handing out the envelopes, so the suspicious and the bitter might wonder if a comparable error might have factored into tabulation.
There are alternative voting methods that could be developed to create an environment where Academy members vote for certain films rather than against other films.  One possibility could be the “five-star system.”  Each voter would be assigned five “stars,” which could be divided into half-star units.  Voters could assign stars to whichever movies they deemed worthy, though no movie could receive more than three full stars.  For example, if a voter really liked two nominated movies and was neutral towards the rest, that person could assign three stars to his favorite movie and two stars to his second favorite, giving no stars to the other films.  If someone had absolutely no preference and there were ten nominated movies, that person could award half a star to each film.  This system allows people to vote for multiple movies that they liked (to varying extents), while eliminating the necessity of identifying which movie you like the least (though a voter could make that clear if desired).   Of course, the movie with the most stars would win.
Of course, all awards are subjective, and no matter which movies win what, film fans are bound to debate over who really deserved to win for a very long time.  It’s just important for Oscar buffs to realize that the current Best Picture ranking system isn’t nearly as simple as it used to be.

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