Oscars 2020: How to Use the Preferential Ballot for Best Picture

The only way to push your favorite movie to the win is to make it No. 1. 
THE OSCARS® - The 91st Oscars® broadcasts live on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood and will be televised live on The ABC Television Network at 8:00 p.m. EST/5:00 p.m. PST. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)CAST AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS OF THE GREEN BOOK
The cast and producers of "Green Book" at the 2019 Academy Awards
ABC/Craig Sjodin

As Academy voters check their Oscar ballots starting Thursday, they must rank the nine contenders for Best Picture. Many of them openly admit that they have no idea how the preferential ballot works. Back in 2009, the Academy, trying to please ABC, abandoned five Best Picture contenders in order, they thought, to bring more commercial titles into the mix. The way it works now, depending on voter passions, there can be from five to ten nominees. Accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers count the ballots with the arcane preferential vote counting system AMPAS had used from 1934 to 1943 when they previously had 10 to 12 nominees. And in doing so, they have confused just about everyone.

With some voting systems, like the Academy’s preliminary voting for Best International Feature, the voters give a score for each contender, which are then averaged to figure out a consensus. Some voters overthink to the point of unintended consequences, believing that somehow the ranking of one to nine results in an average ranking, which hurts the score of a film that is ranked at No. 9. But no such tallying is done. It’s not part of the system.

If you want your favorite movies to be in the running for Best Picture, check these rules to follow when you vote.


Vote with your heart.

Many voters seem to believe that the order in which they rank their favorites could boost their No. 1 choice. Nope. Their ranking will have zero impact on the fate of their No. 1 choice. Not ranking the films in your true order of preference could have big — even unintended — consequences for what wins.

Rank all nine choices. 

Some people think that they can impact the race by listing fewer choices. Nope. Without preferential ranking, the more nominees, the greater the chance a polarizing film might win Best Picture; with nine nominees, if sentiment were closely divided, theoretically a film could win with only 12 percent of the members regarding it as best. (With most Oscar categories with five contenders, a 20 percent + 1 vote is the mathematical minimum, so it’s usually much more, though rarely a majority.)

That’s why the Academy gives voters the chance to rank the films by preference. To make sure your voice is effectively heard, rank the nine titles in order of your preference as to how deserving each is to win. Don’t do anything else.

Let’s play out what happens if a voter plays around with their rankings in an attempt to advance their favorite films, using this year’s leading contenders as examples.

Say a voter thinks “Parasite” is the best nominee. They have “1917” in second place, with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in third. And the voter really doesn’t want “Joker” to win.

The voter decides to help “Parasite” by moving “1917” down to ninth place. Concerned also about “Once,” the voter puts it at No. 8, with “Joker” slotted at No. 7. That Academy member may have just helped to advance “Joker” to win Best Picture over two films they liked more. And did nothing to help “Parasite.”

“Joker”Warner Bros.

Here’s how it works.

When the Academy’s accountants get the ballots, first they tabulate how many No. 1 votes each nominee has. Then they eliminate the title that has the least No. 1 votes. For all the ballots with that title as No. 1, the accountants make the second choice the first. That process is repeated over and over until two films remain. The film that has the most No. 1 votes is the winner. That’s how some ballots’ No. 8 choice could contribute toward the winner.

So if “Parasite” was your No. 1 choice from the start, and if “1917” is another finalist, your vote is counted for “Parasite,” whether you have “1917” at two (your actual preference) or last. As long as your No. 1 film remains in the race, that is how it is counted. The only way to push your favorite movie to the win is to make it No. 1.

But let’s say the two finalists are “Joker” (your No. 7) and “1917” or “Once” (your No. 8 and 9). Hoping to help “Parasite,” what you will have accomplished is hurting “1917” without helping “Parasite.” If “Joker” and either “1917” or “Once” are the two final films standing, you have just voted for “Joker” over “1917.”

This is not unlike the Iowa caucuses: when your candidate doesn’t get 15 percent of the vote, you can jump to another caucus.

The same thing happens if you cut “Once” and “1917” from the ballot, thinking this helps “Parasite.” It does zero for your No. 1, and possibly helps “Joker” if it’s still listed on your ballot.   Voting for fewer than nine only increases the chances a film you don’t want could win.

To help your favorite film win, put it at No. 1. For the maximum voice in the final Best Picture choice, list the rest in order of your real preference. Period. Anything else reduces your voice and does nothing to help your preferred film.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.