James Schamus Reveals Secrets of the Oscar Voting System (EXCLUSIVE)
Ask the most informed Academy members how the nominations process for best picture works and you will find that, aside from some vague notion, they don’t know. Almost no one – even the most dedicated Oscar watcher — has a clue, which is surprising, since the ballots are weighted in a way that has an impact on which films end up getting nominated — even if the opacity of the process means we’ll never really know the full extent of that impact.
If you’ve read up on the nominations process, or have experienced filling out a ballot yourself, you know it all has something to do with “weighting” or “distributing” votes. Members write down five films in order of preference, and somehow those votes are weighted or sorted or redistributed until the final nominees are decided.
For the past couple of years, in an attempt to correct impressions that the move from five to 10 nominees has diluted the prestige in the best picture category, the Academy made changes to allow for any number between five and 10. The move cuts out possible nominations for films without enough support to deserve inclusion. How, exactly, will we end up with six, or seven, or however many nominations? The rules now stipulate that no film can be nominated without at least 5% of the total votes cast in first position. That’s technically true, however, only if you play with the ballots and weight the distribution of some of the second, third, fourth, and fifth choices that certain voters cast.
To explain that structure, let’s assume all 6,000 or so Academy members cast nominating ballots. How do those ballots, with their first through fifth place rankings, get counted?
In the first round, the Academy and the experts at PricewaterhouseCoopers establish a minimum number of votes to be assured a nomination. Since there are 10 possible slots, this cut-off is calculated by dividing all the ballots by 11 (if there are 6,000 ballots, that number would be 545.5, which is then rounded up to 546).
Why divide by 11 and then round up to the nearest whole number? Because only 10 or fewer films could ever reach 546 votes, so that’s the magic number to assure your film absolutely a place on the ballot. Not many films probably hit that cut-off on a first ballot, or even after a number of rounds of balloting, as evidenced by the Academy’s other rule – that no film can be nominated without at least 5% of the total ballots (or 300 votes) in its pile after a number of rounds of ballot redistribution.
How does this “redistribution” work? The votes for some top vote-getters can get redistributed. According to the rules, if a film gets 10% more than the needed 546 first-place votes, ALL the votes cast for that film get redistributed accorded to a weighted proportion. For example, if a film gets three times the votes needed to be nominated (in this case 1,638 votes), the Academy will calculate those votes in such a way that each vote for that film counts for just one-third of a vote toward the total needed. Why? If each vote is adjusted down to one-third of its value, the new total will now magically equal the minimum required for nomination. This means that each member who voted for that film has not used up his or her full vote, but has used up only the one-third needed for the nomination. That voter’s other two-thirds of a vote will now be redistributed to his or her next highest choice.