How do the Oscars choose Best Picture? The complicated nomination process made simple

While Oscar nominees in most of the other races are determined by the traditional system of preferential ballot that winnows the contenders down to a final five, the Best Picture finalists are arrived at by a separate system of tabulation.

Academy members didn’t merely cite their favorite films on a blank ballot that they completed online or ship back to the accountants during voting which ran for nine days beginning on Jan. 5 and ending on Jan. 13. Rather, they ranked up to five films on ballots which must now be counted by a complicated method. So, take a deep breath, as we dive into the Oscar pool.

Photo Gallery: Oscar Best Picture gallery
History of Academy Award winning films

All members of the academy got to fill in nomination ballots for Best Picture and were asked to list up to five films. There will be between five and 10 nominees for Best Picture. To reap a bid, a film has to be one of the top choices of at least 5% of the members taking part in the nomination phase. To illustrate how this system works, let’s look at last year’s race when there ended up being eight nominees.

A record number of the then 6,261 members of the academy took part in the process. Let’s assume that 90% submitted their ballots; that would make for 5,635 ballots in all and 5% of this total is 282 votes.

There are three ways to get to 282:

– 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 second on a ballot with a film in first place that is tops with less than 1% of voters.

Ballots are sorted by the first choice and only those films listed at the top of at least one ballot remain in play.

Find out what will win at the Oscars this year

The maximum number of Best Picture contenders is 10. In our scenario, the initial threshold for a nomination — i.e, the magic number — is set at 513 votes (5,635 divided by 11 and rounded up). If each of 10 films reached this cut-off, they would account for 5,130 ballots, making it mathematically impossible for an 11th film to get the requisite 513 first-place votes.

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. (For other categories, this trigger is set at 20%). The rationale for this rule is so that someone can vote for a hugely popular picture without fear that their ballot doesn’t matter.

In our scenario — where the threshold is 513 first-place votes — the surplus rule would apply to those films which received at least 565 first-place votes. Each of those 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 if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film on the list that is still in play).

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Of our 25 Experts predicting the Oscars last year, 19 had “Spotlight” in first place. Let’s assume it was tops on 25% of the ballots returned; that would give it 1,409 first-place votes. It only needed 513 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each ballot was apportioned with .364 of the vote going to “Spotlight” and .636 to the second-place film if it was still in play (otherwise to the next film listed which is still in play). Those fractional votes were the equivalent of 896 ballots in all.

Which films were likely to be listed second on those ballots that trigger the surplus rule? Did voters who loved “Spotlight” like “The Big Short” almost as much?

Those films that have less than 1% of the ballots following the surplus rule redistribution (in our scenario, that would be 57 ballots) are out of the running. 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, 282 ballots) become the Best Picture nominees.

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Among them, our 25 Experts were predicting 15 different films to be nominated for Best Picture last year. Of those, three — “The Big Short,” “The Martian” and “Spotlight” — made the grade with all of our Experts. They all ended up reaping Best Picture nominations leaving, at best, seven slots open.

However, only five other films earned Best Picture bids. Of these “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant” had the votes of 24 Experts, “Bridge of Spies” was at 23 and “Room” sat at 13. That last nominee was the big surprise of the bunch, especially given the widespread support for two films that were snubbed: “Carol” had 24 votes while “Straight Outta Compton” had 22.

While the Best Picture champ is determined by a version of this preferential system, the winners of the other races are those that top the popular vote — i.e, a voter picks just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the one with the most votes.

Predict the Oscar nominations now; change them till January 24

Be sure to make your Oscar predictions. Weigh in now with your picks so that Hollywood insiders can see how this film is faring in our Oscar odds. You can keep changing your predictions right up until just before nominations are announced on January 24 at 5:00 am PT/8:00 am ET. Be sure to read our contest rules. And join in the fierce debate over the Oscars taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our forums.

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