Oscar’s New Best Picture Nomination Process Explained

Photo: AMPAS // RopeofSilicon.com

It’s getting close to that time of the year when I will begin setting up my Oscar charts, predicting who and what films will be nominated for Oscars followed by who I believe will win. And as we all know already, the Academy has added a wrinkle to the Best Picture process making it much more difficult on us Oscar prognosticators to do so. Now instead of simply listing off what ten films we believe will be nominated for Best Picture we have to decide not only what films will be nominated, but how many films will be nominated as it was determined that 5% of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies being nominated.

If you ask me, this is excellent news, primarily because I have stopped looking at the Oscars as some official barometer of greatness and more as a game in which I try to predict the nominees and winners. For the most part we can all gather and select about 15 to 20 movies that were the best of the year, not accounting for personal opinion and sometimes leaving out those we didn’t see. There’s nothing scientific about loving a film. My #1 film last year was True Grit, the year before that A Prophet and Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008. Of the three True Grit was the only one nominated for Best Picture. Do I care? No. Should I? Nope, doesn’t change my opinion in the slightest and all three remain great films… in my opinion.

So, when the Academy throws in a new rule that makes predicting the Best Picture race even more difficult I’m all for it. It simply means if I can somehow manage to nail not only the correct nominees, but the correct number I have even better bragging rights. However, now that Steve Pond at The Wrap has detailed exactly how those nominees will be arrived at I have a feeling guessing correctly will be damn near impossible.

For starters, Pond’s research suggests the new Best Picture rules are likely to end up using a smaller percentage of Academy members’ votes than the previous version as votes are redistributed and discarded based on a voter’s #1 pick. To conduct his research Pond used the critics’ top ten lists compiled by Movie City News and evaluated the results using the old and new system of which the most notable difference that I can see is the 1-5% rule. I have Pond’s breakdown below, but let me see if I can explain this one detail myself.

Under the new rules a voter’s #1 pick is all that counts, for the most part. The ballots will be piled separately based on voters’ #1 picks, after which any films receiving less than 1% of the #1 votes will have their votes redistributed. So imagine 5,000 ballots are submitted, this means any film receiving less than 50 first place votes will be set aside and redistributed based on the second pick on those ballots. Should the second pick also be a film that didn’t receive higher than 1% of the initial vote, it will go down the line from three, to four, to five, etc. until one of the films that did receive higher than 1% is listed.

Where this causes a bit of an issue is when it comes to the films that received higher than 1% of the vote, but still don’t receive nominations since 5% first place votes are what is needed to be nominated. In Pond’s example from last year this meant films such as True Grit and The Kids Are All Right, both of which were nominated for Best Picture did not receive a Best Picture nomination based on the critics’ top tens, but both received higher than 1% of the vote, which meant the second and third picks on those ballots were not taken into consideration while first place votes for films such as Biutiful and Shutter Island saw their ballots redistributed since those films didn’t meet the 1% threshold.

As a result, this meant several ballots were not used to determine the Best Picture nominee, though one could argue they were used, but used based on their omission rather than their inclusion. Here’s how Pond explained it:

Using the old system, my 2010 simulation took 11 rounds to produce 10 Best Picture nominees. At the end of those 11 rounds, only 10 ballots (six percent of the total) had been discarded, because those critics opted entirely for films that ended up out of the running.

The new system, though, uses just one round of counting and redistribution to come up with the nominees. Using that system, a full 43 ballots, representing almost 28 percent of the total vote, ended up having no impact on the slate of nominees.

Again, I think his statement of “ended up having no impact on the slate of nominees” is a bit misleading since they did have an impact, an impact in that their #1 pick wasn’t nominated. It’s sort of a half-full, half-empty scenario. I certainly don’t see it quite as black and white as Pond does.

However, as far as the nomination process goes this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the past Pond has broken down the old Best Picture voting system with impressive detail as it included several rounds of redistributing in a situation where most of the Academy ballots played a part. I won’t rehash that now since it is in the past, but if you’re interested click here and have at it.

I will, though, include Pond’s breakdown of how the new voting process works. Have a look:

  1. As in the old system, all the Best-Picture ballots are put in piles based on each voter’s first choice. Based on the number of ballots received, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) will determine the number required to guarantee a nomination in the initial count by dividing the number of ballots cast by 11 (the number of available nominations plus one), and then adding one.

    In assigning this number, PwC will assume that 10 nominations are up for grabs, even though the final number may well be lower. For instance: If 5,000 of the Academy’s near-6,000 members cast ballots in the Best Picture category, the magic number will be 455.

    In that situation, a film with 455 votes or more is automatically a nominee.

  2. Any film with 20 percent more votes than it needs triggers the surplus rule, in which the unneeded portion of each vote will go to the second-place film on that ballot, or the highest-ranked film that’s still in the running.

    If, for instance, you need 455 votes to be nominated but you get twice that many, 910, each of your votes will count 50 percent for you and 50 percent for the voter’s next choice. If you get a third more votes than you need, that third will go to your second choice.

    Note: Contrary to a recent explanation in the Hollywood Reporter, this redistribution does not take place with the ballots of all films that receive more than 5 percent of the vote. It only takes place with films getting 20 percent more than they need to guarantee a nomination. (That means you need to get just under 11 percent of the first-place votes, or 546 votes in our example, to trigger the surplus rule.)

  3. Once the surplus redistribution has been made, the films that have less than 1 percent of the total — meaning, in our hypothetical case of 5,000 ballots, all of those with fewer than 50 first-place votes — also have their ballots redistributed. On each of those ballots, the first-place film is crossed off and the vote goes to the film listed second, or to the top-ranked film that is still in the running.

    And then the vote stops. After this single round of redistribution, the accountants will total up all the votes. Any film that now has at least five percent of the vote — in our example, any film with 250 votes — becomes a Best-Picture nominee.

Sound simple enough? Now to try and figure out which films are most likely to get 1% or more of the initial vote and based on what I am seeing here, I would guess films that get 3% more of the initial vote are the only ones likely to get a nomination as I can’t imagine the surplus rule and redistribution of those other ballots being enough to help a 2% or lower film. Of course, I am basing this on absolutely nothing, and even worse, we’ll never know since this portion of the voting process is not revealed.

The Blind Side poster

It was mentioned in the press release announcing the rule change that had this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees. There wasn’t a mention of a year that would include ten, so perhaps that many films being nominated is out of the question.

What’s even more interesting is to ask ourselves just how many people most likely voted for the The Blind Side two years ago as their number one pick? To remain in the running it would have needed at least 50 votes had 5,000 ballots been submitted to make the 1% number, 250 to make the 5% number needed. Perhaps I was too hasty to suggest that would be a film that wouldn’t make the cut, perhaps other recent nominees such as Black Swan, 127 Hours, A Serious Man, District 9 and others are more likely to miss the cut than a broader mainstream film such as The Blind Side. Perhaps this year a film no one expected will even make it in based on general appeal and having very little to do with what we traditionally consider “an Oscar worthy film.”

Could get interesting.

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Weekend: Aug. 29, 2019, Sep. 1, 2019

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