Which Best Picture nominee will get those crucial second-place votes?

Having written at length about the preferential ballot used by Oscar voters in the Best Picture race, let’s turn our attention to how it could play out this year for our three strongest contenders: “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.”

While other Oscar bloggers posit that one of the other six Best Picture nominees — “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” — could win, such speculation belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how this system of preferential voting works. 

Once voting is over on Feb. 25, the accountants will sort the ballots into nine piles corresponding to the first place votes for each of the Best Picture nominees. Given the tightness of the race, it seems safe to assume that no nominee will be ranked first on at least 50% + one of the ballots; if one is, that will be the Best Picture winner. 

Failing that, the accountants will look to the film with the fewest first place votes and reapportion those ballots to the second place choice. This process of elimination and reapportioning will continue until one film reaches at least 50% + one ballots and that will be declared the winner. The academy’s rationale for this complex system is to ensure that the Best Picture champ has the broadest range of support from voters.

So, while it is important to have enough first place votes to avoid being eliminated in the successive rounds, to win Best Picture a film must be ranked second (or at least higher than those nominees still in play) on the most other ballots. 

RELATED: With DGA and PGA wins, why is ‘Gravity’ not lock for Best Picture at Oscars?

Which of our three top contenders is the likeliest to be ranked higher than the other two by voters who placed one of the other six nominees in first place? 

As a corollary, for one of those other six nominees to win Best Picture it would need to be ranked higher than ANY of our top three contenders on a majority of ballots. Such a scenario, while possible, is highly improbable given how guild voting has gone to date. 

We know from last year that upwards of 95% of academy members voted in this final round. This year, that would translate to 5,727 of the 6,028 eligible voters and fifty percent + one = 2,864 ballots. 

For the sake of this simulation, let’s assume that each of “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” is ranked first on 15% of all ballots (859 votes). This assumption seems reasonable given that they lead with the most Oscar nominations and the way they have split the guilds. With no film crossing the threshold of fifty percent plus one, the accountants begin the process of elimination and reallocation. 

Let’s say you loved “Her” and gave it your first place vote. However, only a handful of academy voters felt likewise and it received the fewest number of first place votes (let’s assume 5% which approximates the number of votes it needed to be nominated). It will the first of the nine nominees eliminated and those 286 ballots will be redistributed to the films listed in second place. 

While some of those “Her” ballots will end up on the piles of each of the other eight nominees, successive rounds of elimination and reallocation will see them move around the table. For example, you loved “Her” and then “Nebraska.” However, that film — even after the first round of reallocation — has the fewest number of ballots of the eight nominees still in play. So, all those ballots (that listed “Nebraska” either first or second) are reallocated to the next film on these ballots still in play (thus, if you had “Nebraska” first and “Her” second, the accountants will look to your third place pick.)

Let’s assume “Nebraska” had first place votes on 8% of the ballots (458 votes) and picked up 20% of the 286 “Her” ballots — that gave it 515 ballots in all (9% of all votes cast) which are now reallocated. Where are the most likely to go? If you loved the character study that was “Nebraska,” what other nominee speaks to you most?

Is it “Philomena,” which also explores an unexpected journey of an elderly parent? That film was a surprise entry in this race, which indicates an unexpected level of support among Oscar voters. Perhaps the British contingent, which could be as high as 10% of all academy members, is backing this pony. That would give it 573 first place votes. Add to that one-third of those “Nebraska” ballots (153/458) and 10% of the “Her” ballots (29/286) and this Brit hit could be at upwards of 755 ballots (13% of all votes cast) at the beginning of the third round.

However, even with this reallocation “Philomena” could have the fewest number of ballots of the seven films still in play. Again, what are those voters who ranked it first (or in the top two on the “Nebraska” and “Her” ballots) likely to have next among the six films still in the running?

Perhaps the heartfelt “Dallas Buyers Club” which also examines the life of someone suffering from AIDS. We know this film has strong support from the actors (it was one of the five SAG Ensemble nominees), writers (it contends here and at the WGA for its original screenplay), editors and makeup branches.  

Let’s say “Dallas Buyers Club” also started out with 10% of the first place votes (573 votes). And during reallocation, it picked up one-third of the “Philomena” first place ballots (191/573) plus 10% of each of the “Her” ballots (29/286) and “Nebraksa” ballots (46/458) for a total of 839 votes (15% of all votes cast). However, that still leaves it ranked last among the six films still in play, so another reallocation happens. Where do its ballots go?

Captain Phillips” is another intense drama about a true-life hero. Let’s assume it started out with 11% of the first place votes (630 votes) and picked up enough support from “Her,” “Nebraska” and “Philomena” to remain ahead of “Dallas Buyers Club” at the end of this fourth round and move on to the final five. 

Remember, the first place ballots of all those films no longer in the running are redistributed to those still in contention. Perhaps this is when “Captain Phillps” falls behind “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which may also have started out with just 11% of the first place votes back in round one. 

Were “The Wolf of Wall Street” to make the final four, could it pull off a Best Picture victory? 

To remain in play, it needs it to end up with more ballots than one of our three strongest contenders. And each of these — “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” — has been picking up some support as the other nominees fall by the wayside. For example, if you ranked “Her” first, then “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “Captain Phillips” at this point the accountants would be looking at what you have in fifth place. 

If “Wolf of Wall Street” cannot cobble together enough support from its original first place votes and those of the eliminated nominees, it too will fall and its ballots will be redistributed to whichever of the remaining three is ranked highest. 

Doesn’t it seem reasonable to assume that the majority of voters who loved “The Wolf of Wall Street” enough to rank it first or relatively high will be almost as equally enthused about the similarly themed “American Hustle”? 

Could this support be enough for “American Hustle” to edge ahead of either “Gravity” or “12 Years a Slave” for a final showdown? And if it can’t supplant either of these films, where are its ballots likely to go?

At this point, all that will matter is which of the final two is ranked higher than the other on the eliminated ballots:

If it is between and “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” which of these was ranked higher by the “American Hustle” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)? 

Likewise for “American Hustle” vs. “12 Years a Slave” — which of these films will appeal more to the “Gravity” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)?

And if it comes down to “American Hustle” vs. “Gravity,” which one is likelier to be ranked higher by the “12 Years a Slave” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)?

Should the final two films end up with the same number of ballots after those of the other seven nominees are reapportioned (as happened at the Producers Guild Awards), the Best Picture winner will be that film which has the most first place votes. If there is still a tie at this point, it will be broken by the second place votes and so on. 

What do you think is going to win Best Picture? Vote below using our easy drag-and-drop menu. Come back and change your predictions as often as you like till Oscar night, March 2.

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