Oscars Best Picture ballot counting explained

On Dec. 27, Oscar ballots for Best Picture were sent to 5,783 members of the Academy with instructions to list up to five films. We know between five and 10 nominees will be announced on Tuesday. To reap a bid, a film must be one of the top choices of at least 5% of the members taking part in the nomination phase. (See explanation of vote counting for other categories here.)


Between our Experts, Editors and Users, 1,508 ballots have been cast for Best Picture. As per the modified preferential system in place at the academy, we sorted these ballots by first choice and only those films listed at the top of at least one ballot remained in play. Five percent of these ballots is 76 votes and is our magic number for a nomination. 

The maximum number of Best Picture contenders is 10. In our scenario, the initial threshold for a nomination is set at 138 votes (1,508 divided by 11 and rounded up). If each of 10 films reached this cut-off, they would account for 1,380 ballots, leaving only 128 to be counted, thereby making it impossible for an eleventh film to get the necessary first place votes. 

There are three ways to get to our magic number of 76:

– be listed first on a ballot;
– be listed second on a ballot with a film in first place so popular it triggers the surplus rule; or
– be listed on a ballot with a film in first place that is tops with less than 1% of voters. 

The surplus rule is applied to all films that are listed first on at least 10% more ballots than the initial threshold required for a nomination. In our scenario — where this initial threhold is 138 votes — this would apply to those films which receive at least 152 first place votes. Each of these ballots is apportioned as follows: a share goes to the first place film such that it reaches the initial nomination threshold and the remaining share goes to the second place film (assuming it got at least one first place vote to stay eligible). 

The Artist” topped 756 ballots. As it only needs 138 votes to reach the initial threshold, each ballot is apportioned with .18 of the vote going to “The Artist” and .82 to the second place film. Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 618 ballots in all. 

The Descendants” made the grade with 232 voters so it too triggers the surplus rule with .59 of the vote going to “The Descendants” and .41 to the second place film. Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 94 ballots in all. 

Which films are likely to be listed second on those ballots that trigger the surplus rule? Do voters who love “The Artist” like “Midnight in Paris” (22 first-place votes) or “Hugo” (19 votes) almost as much? Are those fans of “The Descendants” also enamored with “Moneyball,” which tops only 16 lists?

While “War Horse” was ranked first on 150 ballots, this falls shy of the 152 first place votes needed to trigger the surplus rule. 

Those films listed in first on less than 1% of the ballots (in our scenario, that is 15 ballots) are out of the running. These include: “The Ides of March” (15); “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (11) and “Bridesmaids” (2). These ballots are redistributed to the next film listed which is still in play (i.e. they will not be shifted to other films with less than 1% support found lower down on these ballots). 

The counting is over at this point and all those films with at least 5% of the total ballots cast (in our scenario, 76 ballots) will be the Best Picture nominees. 

Those films that make the cut on the basis of their own first place votes are:
“The Artist” (756)
“The Descendants” (232)
War Horse” (150)
“The Help” (89)

Beyond this, expect “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris” and, most likely, “Moneyball” to cobble together enough support by second place positioning behind films that trigger either the surplus or minimal rule to reap Best Picture nominations on Tuesday.

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