The (nominations) Oscar ballot explained (in brief): Meet the ‘preferential voting system’
When it comes to the nominations, how does the Oscar ballot work?
How do members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences make their choices?
How are the eventual nominees – five in most categories – selected?
Using as his sources top people from PricewaterhouseCoopers – that’s the Academy Awards’ accounting firm – Variety‘s Timothy M. Gray attempts to explain “Oscar’s enigmatic ballot” in a few paragraphs. It goes more or less like this:
When voters cast their Oscar ballot, they write down their top five choices per category according to their particular Academy branch – e.g., actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, film editors nominate film editors, and so on. Just about everyone is allowed to vote for Best Picture.
PricewaterhouseCoopers representatives then sort out each Oscar ballot so they can figure out the five – in some special categories, three – nominees.
Key to Oscar ballot tallying
How do the PricewaterhouseCoopers people do that?
In accordance with Academy rules, they follow what’s known as the “preferential voting system.”
But what is the “preferential voting system”?
As Gray explains, one key element of the Oscar ballot tallying – and the preferential voting system – is that “the order in which you list your preferences is important. In the first round of ballot-counting, the [PricewaterhouseCoopers] honchos go through all the first choices. If your first choice winds up with a nomination [i.e., with a minimum of 1/6 + 1 of the votes in each category with five available slots], your ballot is set aside.”
Minimum & maximum + one & only choice
Why are at least 1/6 + 1 of the votes necessary for a nomination in the “regular” Oscar categories?
Because that’s the minimum number of votes allowing for a maximum of five nominees. In other words, it’s mathematically impossible to have six nominees, each with 1/6 + 1 of the total voting tally.
Why is the Oscar ballot set aside?
After the Academy member’s choice is added to the roster of nominees, their Oscar ballot is set aside because their voice has officially been heard.
That may sound like a good thing, but that also means the other four choices on each member’s ballot will be duly ignored.
Is that a good idea?
One-round voting example
Well, let’s say that 1,000 Academy members voted for this year’s Best Picture Oscar and that only one round of ballot-tallying was needed to decide the five nominees.
Let’s now say that 208 members placed No Country for Old Men as the top choice on their Oscar ballot; 208 other members chose There Will Be Blood, 208 chose Juno, and 207 chose Michael Clayton.
These four movies are all automatically nominated as they’ve received more than 1/6 + 1 [1,000 ÷ 6 + 1 = 168] of the vote.
Now, once you add up the votes for these four titles we reach a total of 831 tallied ballots. That means there are now 169 ballots left.
Lo and behold, 168 ballots have Into the Wild as their top Best Picture choice.
And we now have the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees of 2007.
But what about the remaining Oscar ballot?
That lone Academy voter opted for Joe Wright’s Atonement as her no. 1 pick. Why? See further below.
Since each Oscar ballot is set aside after one choice is tallied – in the example above, the very first choice – that means each voter’s four other Best Picture selections will be completely ignored.
Once again, good idea?
Let’s say that besides the 168 Academy voters who selected Into the Wild as their top film, only another 20 included it as their second, third, fourth, or fifth choice.
Into the Wild was thus found in 188 out of 1,000 ballots.
Let’s also say that, besides its lone no. 1 vote Atonement was found in second place on 900 ballots, and in third, fourth, or fifth place on the remaining 99 ballots.
That means the romantic period drama starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy was listed on every single Oscar ballot. It was the second choice in 90 percent of the ballots.
Even so, in the example above Atonement was not one of the 2007 Best Picture nominees, while Into the Wild – found in 812 fewer ballots – was shortlisted.
Preferential voting system leads to surprises
Whether or not you think so, the preferential voting system helps to explain a number of surprises among the Oscar nominations.
Because a relatively small but ardent group of supporters of a film or performance or cinematographer can get their favorites – listed at the top or in second place – nominated, while a (much?) more numerous but less ardent group of voters can have their near-favorites – listed in second, third, fourth, or fifth place – “snubbed.”
And in case you’re wondering about the need for the lone no. 1 vote for Atonement, well, that’s due to an Academy rule requiring that each nominee must have topped at least one Oscar ballot.
Are Academy members aware?
Do Academy members know how their votes are tallied?
An understanding of the “Oscar ballot process” would be essential for the vote counting to be a (at least reasonably) fair representation of the members’ preferences.
For instance, do Academy voters know that only one of their five choices will be tabulated? And that most likely that’ll be either their top or second pick?
Don’t bet on it.
Is Meryl Streep The Queen of Hollywood?
Lastly, Timothy Gray’s Variety article also tells us that “PWC accountants do not penalize you for spelling mistakes or bad penmanship. But if you offer confusing information – voting for Meryl Streep in The Queen, for example – that vote is thrown out.”
In other words, Academy members shouldn’t drink (or do drugs) and vote.
They also should be able to tell the difference between the various light-haired English-speaking actresses.
Plurality takes all
Before we wrap this up, it should be noted that the Academy’s preferential voting system is not used to select the winners. On that particular Oscar ballot, Academy members make only one choice per category.
That means a movie or actor or costume designer could theoretically take home an Oscar statuette with only 1/5 + 1 of the total number of votes.
For instance, if 1,000 Academy members were to vote in the Best Picture category, No Country for Old Men would win with a mere 201 votes (1/5 + 1 of the total) – as long as There Will Be Blood received 200 votes, Juno 200 votes, Michael Clayton 200 votes, and Into the Wild 199 votes.
Silence = luster
Of course, the PricewaterhouseCoopers people have to keep their mouths shut about the final tallies.
After all, much of the Academy Awards’ luster is the result of (almost) no one knowing exactly how each Academy member fills out their Oscar ballot, or how many votes goes to a specific winner (or nominee).
Additionally, an absolute Oscar victory would look considerably less absolute if it were revealed that the win was the outcome of only a handful of (extra) votes. Perhaps even a single one. In recent years, think Little Miss Sunshine vs. The Departed, Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain, and Million Dollar Baby vs. The Aviator vs. Sideways.
Whether in regard to winners or nominees, keep this possibility in mind next time you blame the 6,000-strong Academy for the idiotic choices of perhaps no more than 600 – or 60 or 6 – members.
In other Oscar ballot news…
The 2008 Academy Awards have a number of front-runners and near-front-runners: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood for Best Picture; Ratatouille for Best Animated Feature; Joel and Ethan Coen for Best Director(s); Daniel Day-Lewis and George Clooney for Best Actor; Julie Christie, Marion Cotillard, and Ellen Page for Best Actress.
Since Alt Film Guide has received a number of queries and comments about potential Oscar 2008 contenders, we’ve come up with our list of Oscar Predictions in several categories. See below.
No Country for Old Men.
There Will Be Blood.
Into the Wild.
Other possibilities: Juno, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, American Gangster, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Kite Runner.
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men.
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood.
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly / Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.
Sean Penn, Into the Wild.
Jason Reitman, Juno.
Other possibilities: Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Ridley Scott, American Gangster; Joe Wright, Atonement; Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Julie Christie, Away from Her.
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose / La Môme.
Ellen Page, Juno.
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart.
Amy Adams, Enchanted.
Other possibilities: Keira Knightley, Atonement; Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Laura Linney, The Savages.
George Clooney, Michael Clayton.
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood.
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises.
Denzel Washington, American Gangster.
Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening.
Other possibilities: James McAvoy, Atonement; Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild; Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl; Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah.
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone.
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton.
Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There.
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement.
Ruby Dee, American Gangster.
Other possibilities: Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement; Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Catherine Keener, Into the Wild.
Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men.
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild.
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton.
Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men.
Other possibilities: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War; Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood; Max von Sydow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men.
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood.
Christopher Hampton, Atonement.
Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Sarah Polley, Away from Her.
Other possibilities: Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; David Benioff, The Kite Runner.
Best Original Screenplay
Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Tamara Jenkins, The Savages.
Diablo Cody, Juno.
Brad Bird, Ratatouille.
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton.
Other possibilities: Steven Zaillian, American Gangster (though actually “inspired” by a magazine article.)
Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men.
Seamus McGarvey, Atonement.
Dariusz Wolski, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Other possibilities: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood.
Best Animated Feature
Other possibilities: The Simpsons Movie.
Tom Wilkinson Michael Clayton image: Warner Bros.
Keira Knightley and James McAvoy Atonement image: Universal Pictures.
Amy Adams Enchanted image: Walt Disney Pictures.
“Oscar Ballot Explained + Academy Award Predictions Include Amy Adams & Tom Wilkinson” last updated in September 2018.