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Ten Steps to a Best Picture Oscar Nomination, from “Quota Vote” to “Surplus Reallocation”

Ten Steps to a Best Picture Oscar Nomination, from "Quota Vote" to "Surplus Reallocation"

As balloting for the 2014 Oscars opens on December 27, we thought it was high time to explain how this whole thing really works.

The Oscars have evolved slowly over the years. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has kept the number of awards to 24 categories and only recently has started to tweak the Best Picture voting process. In 2010, the Board of Governors decided to expand the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten (hoping for more mainstream blockbusters, which has not necessarily been the result), and then in 2012 pulled back the number of slots on the Best Picture ballot to five best, yielding a variable number of finalists between five and ten. So it’s no surprise that the numbers crunching behind the voting remains arcane to Academy members and public alike.

The Oscars are an election, and whether it’s politics or awards, those with a large stake in the results know that the devil is in the details. For anyone running for elective office, voting hours, mail-in balloting, stringent registration laws, potential runoffs, open or closed primaries and other factors can make a crucial influence the outcome. Likewise for the Academy Awards, how the votes are counted has major significance.

For decades, the Academy and their accounting partner PriceWaterhouseCoopers have used a preferential voting and ballot counting system for nominations voting that is designed to balance passion and consensus. In part that’s because the large number of potential nominees make it impossible for most members to watch all eligible best picture contenders (289 qualified in 2013). So in order to counterbalance the big-spending studios’ inherent advantage, they have made sure that the final vote is open to a wider-than-normal number of contenders than might qualify under more conventional balloting.

When the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to more than five, they initially set the number at 10. But after one year, worried that slighter films might make the cut with a low threshold, they adjusted by instituting the 5% rule. Now for a film to land a nomination it must have #1 support from at least 5% of the best picture voters.

Talk to Academy members and even Oscar campaigners and many have just a vague notion of how this works. So we asked Rick Rosas, a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers (currently one of the two CPAs who bring the ballots to the ceremony every year), to carefully walk us through the process. 

Here’s a primer on how the current system works. For the sake of clarity, we’re assuming that 5,500 ballots will be mailed in, delivered or filed online (a tad more than they claimed last year). (Oscar voting rules are available here.)

  • 1. BALLOTS OPEN TO ALL MEMBERS Active members who belong to the branches that vote for awards (actors, directors, writers, sound mixers, and so on) get to nominate films (some categories such as foreign-language films have special rules and voting committees). All members in good standing, including those who are at-large, producers, executives, and publicists, can vote for Best Picture, starting this year on December 27. 
  • 2. MEMBERS LIST THEIR CHOICES They fill in the ballot in preferential order, from 1 to 5. No member is required to list more than one. When the number of possible Best Picture nominees was increased in 2010 and for the following year, they could list up to 10. That was reduced to 5 for 2012, and that remains the maximum number this year. The ballots are due no later than 5 pm Pacific on January 8. The Oscar nominations will be announced at 5:30 AM Pacific on January 16. 
  • 3. BALLOTS RETURNED TO PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS –either by mail if requested, or online as the Academy now prefers. In any case, PriceWaterhouse prints out and counts the ballots and places them in piles by hand, as they have always done, irrespective of how they are cast. 
  • 4. INITIAL ALLOCATION BY #1 FILM As happens with most categories with five nominees (with variations for branches that rate a select number of contenders after a presentation such as Best Song and Best Visual Effects), PriceWaterhouse separates all ballots into piles of the #1 choice, and after counting these, positions them from the highest number to the lowest. They also tally the number of total ballots.
  • 5. DIVISION BY 11 TO DETERMINE “QUOTA VOTE” RULE Here’s where it gets complicated. With a maximum of 10 nominees, any film that has enough #1 votes equal to one eleventh of the total + one is now a nominee. (No more than 10 films can reach that fraction.)  If there are 5,500 ballots, rounded off, the relevant number is 501. Any film that has reached a quota of 501 #1 votes in the initial tally is in.
  • 6. FIGURE WHICH FILMS QUALIFY FOR “SURPLUS REALLOCATION” The Academy wants to make sure that if a small number of nominees dominate the #1 choice, others that have support down the line get a fair hearing in order to provide both passion and consensus. With five positions, this has meant that PriceWaterhouse will reallocate a fraction of a qualified nominee’s votes if they exceed 20% of the number needed for nomination. With the revised Best Picture category, this “surplus” level is now 10%. So with 5,500 ballots, and 501 needed to qualify already for nomination, an additional 10% means 551 #1 votes. So PriceWaterhouse checks the vote count of the films that have already qualified as nominees. Films that have 551 or more #1 votes are now eligible to have their second choices reallocated to other films.
  • 7. CALCULATING REALLOCATION NUMBERS  For the already-qualified nominated films that boast enough surplus votes, PriceWaterhouse moves to the number two choice, which gets lesser weight. Let’s say one of the films receives 1002 initial #1 votes — twice as many as the 501 needed to be in. For that film, PriceWaterhouse will reduce its vote total to 501 (the minimum to be nominated) and will reallocate the remaining number two choices (in this case 501) at half a vote. Then PriceWaterhouse will look at that film’s #2 choice for each and every ballot and reallocate them — at half, not full, vote — to the piles for any other film not yet qualified (skipping over any other film that has already been nominated). This would be done for each film that is a nominee, with reallocated votes from that film then being added to those other film’s totals.
  • 8. RECALCULATING AFTER REALLOCATION PriceWaterhouse evaluates the new vote counts, including the smaller percentage of reallocated votes, to see if any additional films now total the 501 votes needed to become a nominee at this stage. If so, they are added to the final list of nominated films.
  • 9. REALLOCATING VOTES OF FILMS WITH 1% OR FEWER #1 VOTES With those films that get fewer than 1% #1 votes, PriceWaterhouse eliminates the number one choice and moves to number two, giving it a full vote. This means that members can still feel free to select  their own film or a long-shot personal favorite without wasting their vote. (Adam Sandler, for example, could theoretically show home team loyalty by choosing “Grown Ups 2” as #1 and not worrying about wasting his vote.) If voters want to strategize, they need to be aware that they may not be voting for a guaranteed nominee, and their vote could fall into a no-man’s land. Any film that doesn’t score enough number one or number two votes will have a tough time getting a nomination. Very few number three votes come into play. Here’s why. This truncated process no longer continues reallocating until all duplications are removed. For those whose initial number one choices fall between 1 and 5%, they have to hope that their vote is added to other voters’ choices– either those that surpass 10% initial #1 votes or have less than 1%. Realistically any film that is less than 3% on the first go-round is unlikely to wind up with a nomination. This could be significant this year with a wider than usual number of realistic alternatives.
  • 10. APPLYING THE 5% RULE This is where the recent change comes into play. With the reallocating completed, PriceWaterhouse looks at all the films to see which ones now, both original and reallocated, total 5% or more (in the case of 5,500 ballots, 275). Armed with how many films now have 5%, three different outcomes are possible. If there are at least 5 but no more than 10, then the nominees are settled. If there are fewer than 5 (unlikely, but theoretically possible), then all this work is abandoned. All ballots are reset to their original #1 choices. And the process begins again, although in this case, with a threshold on the basis of five nominees, of one-sixth + 1 (917 votes) needed after the conventional reallocation process is completed to determine the nominees. If there are more than 10 (again not impossible) then the existing piles stand, and the reallocation process continues with the original 501 number ultimately needed to become a nominee.

The weird thing is, that with so many admired films vying for a Best Picture nomination this year, there could end up being fewer nominees. Process impacts results. As the Academy bends over backwards to try and broaden the range of nominees– in order to promote popular titles and draw a wider number of viewers to the ABC telecast– in the end, they are making the process so serpentine, that they might be better served by returning to the simpler, traditional five-nominee option. 

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