A Handy User’s Guide to the Academy’s New Best Picture Voting Rules

By  · Published on September 1st, 2009

As you probably already know, it was announced earlier in the day by Steven Pond over at the fantastic Awards blog The Odds that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be switching the rules around so that the giant field of 10 Best Picture nominees have an honest shot at emerging on top.

Or, the rules would be so complicated that no one would care how the winner ended up snagging the golden statuette.

Under the old system, once the nominees were put in place, the over-6,000 members of AMPAS would vote on the Best Picture by checking a single box next to the name they felt had earned it. The film with the most votes, won. Simple. The new process, not as simple, but it’s arguably necessary considering the increase in nominees.

So let’s make some sense of that new process shall we?

The Problem

The reason for the new system is fairly simple. With 10 Best Picture nominees, and (for the sake of simplification) 6,000 votes, it would technically only take 601 votes for a movie to win Best Picture (if one film got 599 votes, and the eight others all got 600). That movie would have a clear plurality which is all that was required to win under the old system. The problem with this is fairly obvious and two-fold:

So a new system was needed.

The New System

Under the new system, Academy members will rank all 10 Best Picture nominees just like you did in high school when you chose Class Clown and Most Likely to End Up Homeless. The rankings will all be tallied, and the ballots will be arranged in 10 stacks corresponding to which film was chosen as #1 on them. For example, the ballots that list No Country for Old Men as the best film are over there by the water cooler, and the ballots listing Juno as #1 are to your left near the break room.

If one film has a simple majority (over 50% of the members ranking it #1) then it’s declared the winner. This is possible, but highly unlikely to happen in the first round.

If no film has a simple majority, the smallest stack (and therefore the film with the fewest #1 rankings) gets removed and redistributed according to what movie was voted #2 on it. This process is repeated until a film has more than 50% of the votes. Theoretically, a film would need a large amount of #1s, #2s, #3s, and possibly #4s in order to take the Gold.

Make sense? Didn’t think so. Hopefully, a sample ballot will help!

The Sample Ballot

Instead of using fictional films, I’ve chosen to use films from 1939 because 1) I’m apparently an old soul at 25-years of age and b) there were ten Best Picture nominees that year. How convenient!

The campaigns have all fought hard, all the votes have been cast, the ballots have been stacked neatly into piles, and here are the first results!

Round One: (3,001 ballots needed to win)

  1. The Wizard of Oz — 1,500 ballots choosing it as #1
  2. Gone With the Wind – 1,250 ballots choosing it as #1
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 600 ballots choosing it as #1
  4. Dark Victory – 440 ballots choosing it as #1
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 430 ballots choosing it as #1
  6. Love Affair – 420 ballots choosing it as #1
  7. Ninotchka – 410 ballots choosing it as #1
  8. Of Mice and Men – 400 ballots choosing it as #1
  9. Stagecoach – 350 ballots choosing it as #1
  10. Wuthering Heights — 200 ballots choosing it as #1

Look at those nice clean numbers. It’ll never happen that way, but it helps to keep things simple and clean.

We don’t have a winner yet.

In fact, the highest ranked movie (the one that was voted #1 the most) has just slightly less than half the votes it would need to win, so Wuthering Heights is eliminated (sorry, Samuel Goldwyn), and those 200 ballots are re-examined to see what movie Wuthering Heights fans thought was that year’s second-best. For some reason, all 200 of them voted Gone With the Wind as #2. Remember it’s just those 200 ballots that are added to the tally.

Round Two:

  1. The Wizard of Oz – 1,500 ballots
  2. Gone With the Wind – 1,450 ballots
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 600 ballots
  4. Dark Victory – 440 ballots
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 430 ballots
  6. Love Affair – 420 ballots
  7. Ninotchka – 410 ballots
  8. Of Mice and Men – 400 ballots
  9. Stagecoach – 350

We still don’t have a winner. So Stagecoach is out, and those ballots are re-examined to see what those fans felt was the second-best film of the year. As it turns out, all 350 freaking loved Gone With the Wind. Are you sensing a pattern with my doctoring the numbers?

Round Three:

  1. Gone With the Wind – 1,800 ballots
  2. The Wizard of Oz – 1,500 ballots
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 600 ballots
  4. Dark Victory – 440 ballots
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 430 ballots
  6. Love Affair – 420 ballots
  7. Ninotchka – 410 ballots
  8. Of Mice and Men – 400 ballots

We still don’t have a winner. So Of Mice and Men loses its ballots, and they are checked for a second choice. Wouldn’t you know it? They all also loved Gone With the Wind, making life that much easier for our tabulators.

Round Four:

  1. Gone With the Wind – 2,200 ballots
  2. The Wizard of Oz — 1,500 ballots
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 600 ballots
  4. Dark Victory – 440 ballots
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 430 ballots
  6. Love Affair — 420 ballots
  7. Ninotchka – 410 ballots

We still don’t have a winner. So you know the drill with Ninotchka’s ballots. Turns out that 400 of those ballots loved Gone With the Wind and 10 of them loved The Wizard of Oz second-best. So the numbers change again:

Round Five:

  1. Gone With the Wind – 2,600 ballots
  2. The Wizard of Oz – 1,510 ballots
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — 600 ballots
  4. Dark Victory – 440 ballots
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 430 ballots
  6. Love Affair – 420 ballots

We still don’t have a winner. Surprise, surprise. Luckily, though – every single Love Affair fan liked Gone With the Wind second best which finally gives us this tally:

Round Six: (3,001 ballots needed to win)

  1. Gone With the Wind3,020 ballots
  2. The Wizard of Oz – 1,510 ballots
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 600 ballots
  4. Dark Victory – 440 ballots
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 430 ballots

We have a winner! Gone With the Wind has finally crossed the magic 50% threshold and gotten enough ballots to secure the win! Ladies and gentlemen, your Best Picture Winner of 1939!

A Few Problems with the New System

As you can tell by my illustration, the easiest problem to spot is that it’s going to take a lot of rounds to determine a winner. But the major problems of the system have nothing to do with the laymen like you and me sitting back at home hoping that the movie we picked in the office pool wins. The major problems have to do with voters themselves.

The first foreseeable problem is voters not understanding the new system. What happens if an older member can’t quite grasp the concept of ranking and fills out the ballot incorrectly? Is the ballot just thrown out? What if he/she only ranks 5 of the films, but leaves the others off? Is it invalid?

With any new system, there are going to be mistakes and people that don’t understand it. No matter what, there will at least be a few ballots that are tossed out because they haven’t been properly filled out. It’s unclear what steps the Academy is going to take with those ballots exactly at this point.

The second problem (or at least something interesting) is that having the most ballots choose you as #1 doesn’t necessarily secure a victory. As you can see from my sample ballot, The Wizard of Oz was chosen the most as the #1 film of the year, but along the way it got overtaken by Gone With the Wind for the win. I’m not sure exactly what this means, but if a film is polarizing and gets a huge amount of #1s but almost no #2s, it could be knocked out of the competition. Thus, the Oscar campaigns we’ve learned to hate so much may need to change their strategy in order to just gain a generally good feeling about the film so voters choose it up near the top, but not necessarily as #1. That’s right – winning by not aiming for the top spot.

The third problem (or at least something I don’t know or understand) is the situation of having a ballot proclaim a film that’s already been knocked out of the running in its #2 spot. What would happen if a ballot for Love Affair that got dissolved in the fifth round listed Stagecoach as its second-favorite? Is the ballot thrown out? Does the ballot default to the #3 choice (or to the next highest choice that’s still in the running)? This seems most likely, but its level of “fairness” is also unclear. Why give a ballot to one of the films if it was only chosen as the fifth-favorite? Has it really earned the ballot at that point?

Some Parting Thoughts

I actually think this is a great solution to a complex problem. Of course the math is a little difficult, and the tabulation is always going to be a headache, but I don’t care much about that since I’m not the one doing the counting. There are still going to be tight races, still going to be upsets and surprises, and still going to be some genuine winners.

Or, at least, the Academy’s Executive Director Bruce Davis hopes that the winner will be “the picture that has the most support from the entire membership.”

What do you think?

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