The Basic Math of Oscar Voting

By  · Published on February 9th, 2017

Ever wonder how a film becomes the Best Film? It’s all in the numbers.

On February 26th, millions of people will gather around their television sets and tune in to watch the 89th Academy Awards. Hollywood’s biggest night is full of swanky, glamorous movie stars and some of the best movies of the year. There are five nominees in each of the acting categories as usual, and this year sees nine films up for Best Picture – but how did these movies become the nominees? Who voted for them? The voting process is actually a pretty complicated affair that most people don’t understand, and by ‘most people’ we even mean some voters themselves. Keep reading as we break the sometimes daunting voting and nomination process down so it’s hopefully easy to understand.

The approximately 7,000 members of the Academy of Motion Arts and Picture Sciences (AMPAS) are the ones who vote for the nominees. Each member belongs to a specific branch – the director’s branch, actor’s, sound editor’s, etc. – and they vote within their specific branch to determine who the nominees are going to be. The ballots have five slots per category that voters are encouraged to fill out according to their preference. For all the categories, except Best Picture, the person or film with the most votes gets the nomination and the eventual win.

The Best Picture category is where things get really complicated, especially since all AMPAS members can vote for it and there can be anywhere between five and ten nominees. So, to secure its place on one of the ballots, a film must either be listed first on a ballot, be listed second with a film in first place that is on less than 1% of voters’ ballots, or be listed second with a film in first place so popular it triggers the surplus rule which is applied to all films that are listed first on at least 10% more ballots than the initial threshold required for a nomination.

Still with us?

That threshold number is found by dividing the total number of voters (in our case, 7000) by the potential number of nominees (10) plus one (11) which gives us the magic number of 636. Any film that crosses that threshold number is added to the Best Picture lineup.

Trying to figure out Oscar voting like

All that confusing math boils down to the idea that the Best Picture winner might not be everyone’s personal favorite. It’s going to be the consensus favorite because it has to be ranked higher on the most ballots. So how does a film win? Once the nominees have been announced, voters are then asked to rank the films in contention from one to nine (or however many films are nominated that year), but they’re not required to complete the ballot. The ballots are then gathered and organized into piles according to the first choice on the ballot. Each film gets its own pile and the film that appears most often in the first-place position will have the largest stack, the movie with the next-most first-place votes will have the second-largest, and so forth. Then each stack is counted.

Sorry to the film with the least amount of number one votes because you’re not going to win. Instead, that film is eliminated and the number two pick on those ballots will be considered and counted towards that second film. That continues to happen for the other subsequent films with the least amount of votes until a ballot whose first two films are eliminated comes up. In that case, that vote is counted to whichever film ranked highest and still in contention. This continues to happen until one film receives a majority of the votes and, thus, you have the undisputed and 100% accurate Best Picture of the year.

‘Crash’ – Best Picture of 2005, according to math.

It’s an unnecessarily complicated process involving a lot of math just to pick the best movie of the year, but hopefully this helps make the voting process on through the eventual win just a little bit clearer. AMPAS members have from February 13th to February 21st to make their choices. Will there be a La La Land sweep? Will Moonlight or Hidden Figures pull an upset? Who knows? Tune in and watch the Oscars unfold on February 26th at 8 P.M. EST, and be sure to check back here for all our Oscars coverage.

Related Topics: ,