Oscar mystery solved: Counting of Best Picture preferential ballots explained

mad max room the revenant preferential ballot

The preferential ballot is one of the most important and at times confounding elements of the Oscar race for Best Picture. Instead of simply choosing a winner, voters rank the Best Picture nominees in order of preference, and those votes are tabulated and redistributed until an ultimate winner is selected.

To demonstrate, we started a thread in our forums asking posters to rank their five favorite Best Picture nominees from this year’s contest. I’ll use their first 10 responses to illustrate the process and determine what we might glean from it. Let’s call these 10 voters the Academy of Forum Posts and Sciences:

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kazzia
1. Mad Max: Furry Road
2. The Big Short
3. The Revenant
4. Spotlight
5. Room

Bradderz
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Room
3. Spotlight
4. The Big Short
5. Bridge of Spies

FilmGuy619
1. Room
2. Brooklyn
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Martian
5. The Big Short

Lord Freddy Blackfyre
1. The Revenant
2. The Big Short
3. Room
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
5. The Martian

Emil Petrov
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. The Martian
3. Room
4. The Revenant
5. Brooklyn

MrGoodWood
1. Mad Max
2. Spotlight
3. Bridge of Spies
4. Room
5. Brooklyn

MichaelNorris
1. Room
2. The Big Short
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Spotlight
5. Bridge of Spies

OnTheAisle
1. The Revenant
2. Spotlight
3. Brooklyn
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
5. Room

ColinWesley
1. Room
2. Mad Max
3. The Revenenant
4. The Martian
5. Spotlight

Sab227
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Room
3. The Revenant
4. Brooklyn
5. The Martian

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This academy has 10 members, so you need a maof jority six votes to win. However, “Mad Max: Fury Road” only has five first-place votes, “Room” has three and “The Revenant” has two, so no film wins yet.

The other five nominees got no first-place votes at all, so they’re already out of the running. And “The Revenant” has the fewest votes, so it’s out too, which leaves “Mad Max” and “Room” as the remaining Best Picture possibilities.

But we’re not just going to throw away those two “Revenant” ballots, submitted by Lord Freddy Blackfyre and OnTheAisle. We need to redistribute them to the remaining possible contenders to determine the winner. So we move to their second-place choices: Lord Freddy picked “The Big Short” as runner-up, and OnTheAisle picked “Spotlight” – no luck there, since both of those films are already out of contention.

So we move on to who is in third place on their ballots. Lord Freddy picked “Room” and OnTheAisle went with “Brooklyn.” That means Lord Freddy’s vote now goes to “Room,” giving it four total. It’s starting to catch up to “Mad Max.”

We’re done with Lord Freddy’s ballot, but OnTheAisle’s is still in play since “Brooklyn” was already disqualified. So what’s in fourth place on his ballot? “Mad Max”! That gives “Mad Max” its sixth vote and the majority it needs to take Best Picture. Congratulations!

So what can we take away from this little experiment in academy procedure? First, while consensus matters under this system, so does passion. After all, “Mad Max” was already just one vote shy of a majority after only considering first-place votes. Of course, this was a small sample size, unlikely to match exactly what will happen with more than 6,000 Oscar voters’ ballots in play, but the principle remains the same: if you start with the most number-one votes, you don’t need quite as much consensus down below, so you can afford to be a little more divisive than your competitors.

But where you put the rest of your votes does matter, of course. Consider that the deciding vote for “Mad Max” for Best Picture came from a “Revenant” supporter who ranked “Mad Max” in fourth place. And take another look at OnTheAisle’s ballot: he actually had “Room” in fifth place. If he had just flipped his fourth and fifth rankings, “Room” would have gotten his vote instead, resulting in a five-to-five tie. So even with just 10 voters, the result ultimately came down to the difference between fourth and fifth place on one ballot.

Another important takeaway is that we can’t necessarily predict what a voter will like based on what else they like. Many assume that a “Mad Max” fan would like another big-budget extravaganza like “The Revenant,” or that “Spotlight” partisans would also like another social-issue ensemble movie like “The Big Short.” Movies of similar types will group together on the ballots of voters they appeal to, right?

Well, just consider our little academy: Bradderz picked “Mad Max” to win, but had the small-scale indie “Room” in second place. Lord Freddy picked “The Revenant” and then “The Big Short.” MrGoodWood picked “Mad Max” and then “Spotlight.” ColinWesley had “Room” and then “Mad Max.”

How then could we make assumptions about the academy en masse. If, say, “Brooklyn” is eliminated in the early stages of Oscar tabulation, that ballot could end up going to another female-driven indie like “Room,” but it could just as easily go to “The Revenant.” A “Martian” fan could have “Spotlight” in second place. And so on. The nuances of each individual voter’s tastes are impossible to generalize, which is why it has been so helpful in recent years to have the Producers Guild give us a sneak preview of preferential voting at their awards (which has predicted Oscar’s Best Picture for six years in a row).

However, the preferential ballot doesn’t necessarily result in different winners. Consider that “Mad Max” won here under the preferential ballot, but it also would have won if we counted it the old-fashioned way, with voters just picking one movie as their favorite. So it’s possible that every Oscar winner under this system would have won under the old system too. That may even be statistically likely, since a movie with the most first-place votes already has a leg up on the competition when you start counting the consensus votes.

So does it really matter that “The Big Short” won PGA on a preferential ballot while “The Revenant” won BAFTA with voters just picking their favorite? Was that disagreement the result of the voting systems or just the result of the two voting bodies having different opinions?

And do you think this is a better system for picking the winners? Having conducted this experiment I find that I like it. It balances the passions of a few members with the preferences of the entire voting body in a way that seems admirably democratic, allowing you to vote for a potential outlier like “Brooklyn” or “Bridge of Spies” while still giving you an important role in picking the winner.

What do you think?

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Photo credits: “The Revenant” by 20th Century Fox; “Room” by A24; “Mad Max” by Warner Bros. Pictures

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