Oscar Best Picture preferential ballot could mean win for ‘Hidden Figures’ over ‘La La Land’

After its surprise SAG Awards win for Best Ensemble, “Hidden Figures” may well pull off an Oscar upset for Best Picture over the frontrunnerLa La Land.”  Its key to victory lies in the preferential ballot that the academy reintroduced in 2009, when the academy went to 10 nominees in this category for the first time since 1943.

Unlike the outcomes of the other categories which are determined by popular vote — i.e, a voter picks just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to that contender with the most votes — the winner of Best Picture is arrived at by modified version of the preferential voting that determined the nominees in those other races.

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The preferential method was first used in 1934 when there were 12 Best Picture nominees (there had been between three and 10 in the first six years of the Academy Awards) and was used the following year when there were again 12 nominees, from 1936 to 1943 when there were 10 nominees, and in both 1944 and 1945 when there were just five contenders.

It was kept in place in 2011 when the number of nominees shifted to somewhere between five and 10. The academy believes this “best allows the collective judgment of all voting members to be most accurately represented.”

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This year, voters will rank the nine Best Picture nominees. If one nominee garners more than 50% of the first place votes, it will win Best Picture. If, as is more likely, no nominee reaches this threshold, the film with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, with its ballots being reapportioned to the second-place choice.

Should no film cross the required 50% + one ballot threshold, the film with the fewest first-place votes is again eliminated, with its ballots being apportioned to the next choice still in play (i.e., if the second-place choice is no longer in the running, then the ballot would be reapportioned to the third-place choice and so on). This process of elimination and reapportion continues until one film reaches at least 50% + one ballots. That is the Best Picture winner.

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Last year, “The Revenant” was tipped to take Best Picture after its helmer, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, won the DGA Award and the film swept the BAFTAs. However, “Spotlight” prevailed despite claiming only one other Oscar — Best Original Screenplay — becoming the first Best Picture champ since “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1953) with such a small haul. More than likely, it pulled off this upset by being ranked higher than “The Revenant” on more of the ballots that had one of the other six Best Picture nominees in first place.

As with “Hidden Figures,” “Spotlight” had won Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards. And “Hidden Figures” is also a strong contender for a screenplay award, with director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder adapting Margot Lee Shetterly‘s non-fiction bestseller of the same name. With rave reviews and boffo box office, this heartwarming true story of the unsung heroines of the space race is likely to be ranked quite high by many academy members.

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