Oscars: Why This Could Be the Year Only 5 Films Get Nominated for Best Picture

Oscars: Why This Could Be the Year Only 5 Films Get Nominated for Best Picture

When the Academy abandoned its short-lived experiment with 10 Best Picture nominees in 2012, the arcane system it adopted promised a changing number of nominees each year—as few as five, as many as 10. The Academy even ran tests of the new voting procedures using previous years’ ballots, and assured observers that in at least one (unnamed) year, the number of nominees would have been five. But that hasn’t come to pass. Neither has a total of six, seven, or 10 nominees. Of the three rounds of Oscar nominations since the switch, there have been eight or nine films in the race for Best Picture each time. 

This strange Oscar season may change that.

The conventional wisdom has it that a wide-open field increases the chances of 10 films receiving a Best Picture nomination—voters spreading the love—but the math suggests otherwise. And yes, with preferential ballots and 6,291 eligible voters and "surplus reallocation" and "the 5% rule," predicting the Oscars now requires math. (If you want to know more, read our step-by-step breakdown of the complicated Best Picture nominating process.)

READ MORE: "Guillermo del Toro, John Krasinski, and Ang Lee to Announce Oscar Nominations Thursday" 

Before Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations announcement, we explain why this year could see seven, six, or even five Best Picture nominees:

#1 votes are key. Though each Best Picture ballot may contain up to five titles, ranked in order of preference, it’s the first-place votes that matter most. As The Wrap’s Steve Pond calculates, if all eligible voters submit a ballot, a film needs 571 first-place votes (one-eleventh of the total, plus one) in the initial round of tabulation to earn a Best Picture nomination. This becomes more difficult with more films receiving #1 votes. The average number of first-place votes earned by the top nominee between 2001 and 2011, per the L.A. Times, was 20.5%.

This year, there are more films in contention overall—and fewer clear frontrunners—than usual. To give a generous estimate, 20 or 25 films might be in the race, which any experienced Oscar observer will tell you has been idiosyncratic throughout. As a result, each individual film faces a harder climb to cross the minimum threshold of 5% (315 votes, using Pond’s example) required to land a Best Picture nomination.   

READ MORE: Oscar Predictions 2016       

In a wide-open field, lack of consensus may be more likely down the ballot, too. The more films that receive #1 votes, the more films will be below 5% after the first round of counting, much less surpass the magic "one-eleventh plus one" barrier. This is where "surplus reallocation"—and thus #2 votes—come into play. If #2 votes are as fragmented as we expect #1 votes to be, it becomes even harder for films with 3% or 4% support after the initial count to meet the 5% requirement. (Remember, a second-place ranking is worth less than a full vote, though the exact fraction varies.) Films need to garner both passionate support and consensus to land a Best Picture nomination, and the sheer breadth of contenders limits the potential of any one title to check both boxes. 

Here’s an example. Let’s say the current leaders in the Oscar race, "The Big Short" and "Spotlight"—which have the support of the actors, writers, and producers, if the guild nominations are any indication—are the only films to receive more than 10% of the #1 votes after the first count. In that case, they’re in. (The only other film to be nominated for Best Ensemble by SAG, Best Original or Adapted Screenplay by the WGA, and end up in the PGA’s top 10 is "Straight Outta Compton," which until recently was on few analysts’ radars.)

For the sake of argument, let’s say "The Martian" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" also receive between 5% and 10% of the #1 votes in the first round. If the rest of the field is as fragmented as we expect, it’s possible that many films receive only 2-4% of the #1 votes, making a down-ballot consensus choice (say, "Bridge of Spies") the only additional film able to cross the 5% threshold after surplus reallocation. That would make five Best Picture nominees for the first time under the new rules. 

We predict between five and seven Best Picture nominees, for the first time under the current system. The unexpected inclusion of "Ex Machina" and "Sicario" on the PGA list of 10 nominees confirms that support is spread out among many films. And the fact is, with more titles competing for the same, finite number of votes, it will be more difficult for the eight or nine films of recent years to reach 5%. The exact number will depend on just how divided the voters are on their #1 and #2 choices, but this year’s math—and its unpredictable twists and turns to date— point in a clear direction: a shorter, not longer, list of Oscar suspects.

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Comments

Bobbi Walker

I really hope that Leonardo DeCaprio wins the oscar for his brilliant acting in The Revenant. He is long overdue for an award.

June

If I’ve followed this article correctly it would appear that the reduced number of contenders is the result of limiting the rounds of counting. If instead the goal were to produce a specific number of nominee, be that 10 or 5, just extending the rounds until that number pass the threshold would produce the desired result.

Anne Thompson

They keep rejiggering the system in hopes that they will get more commercial candidates and American Sniper last year validated the system. I think it should return to five because this way voters game the system by putting certain films at number one etc. Make it pure again.

Thomas Forguson

If joy is not nominated, it should be recommended for the academy members not to listen to critics. The critics proved their imbalcy by claiming that a 3 hour snooze fest called Boyhood was a great movie.

Thomas Forguson

If Joy is not nominated, it should be a mandatory requirement for the academy members not to listen to critics. The critics proved their imbalcy by claiming that a 3 hour snooze fest was a great movie.

memo

Use simple math to nominate the right choices. Forget that convoluted system that favors some films rather than others. It’s after a popularity contest.

Chris

@MSD, you’re right. Most of them don’t vote. The place where I worked, the voter had his assistant vote for him.

msd

Do we know how many voters actually vote though? It can’t be 100% because I’ve heard a number of actors, at least, publicly state they don’t vote. Is it 90%, 80%, lower?

ff

All major awards should have 10 nominees. It’s ridiculous that there are only 5 Best Director Nominees for 10 Best Pictures. It’s ridiculous that there are only 5 Best Actress/Actor/Supportings given that there are so many actors in each movie. And while I’m at it, how about creating a True Supporting Actress/Actor category, and stop slipping the headliners into the Supporting Category because they are competing with their Co-Star? Any name above the title is NOT a supporting actor.

Sailingsam

Just make it 10 nominees every year!

jay

@Adam, actually the inclusion of "mediocre middle of the road flicks" was the point, that year when There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men were the main contenders was the initial tipping point – neither had massive box office and so the TV viewing figures for the oscars hit a real low, the 10 picture category was intended to allow for commercial successes to be included alongside the critical successes so that the awards show would appeal to more viewers

Adam Tawfik

Quite frankly, I liked it better when there were 5 nominees. Everybody argued that the 6-10 nominee system would help films that fell under the cracks. All it’s done was nominate more mediocre middle of the road flicks. I have a feeling that at least 8 nominees will appear since the precedent has been set.

howard koor

Thanks for sharing. Why the change?

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