Oscars complicated counting of Best Picture ballots 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 Jan. 24. 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. 

Let’s assume that 80% of members submit their ballots by the Jan. 13 deadline; that would make for 4,626 ballots in all and 5% of this total is 232 votes.

There are three ways to get to our magic number of 232:

– 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. 


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

The maximum number of Best Picture contenders is 10. In our scenario, the initial threshold for a nomination is set at 421 votes (4,626 divided by 11 and rounded up). If each of 10 films reached this cut-off, they would account for 4,210 ballots, making it mathematically impossible for an eleventh film to get 421 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. In our scenario — where the threhold is 421 votes — this would apply to those films which received at least 463 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. 

Of our 30 Experts, 24 have “The Artist” in first place. Let’s assume it is tops on 15% of the ballots returned; that would give it 694 first place votes. It only needs 421 first place votes to reach the initial threshold so each ballot is apportioned with .61 of the vote going to “The Artist” and .39 to the second place film. Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 273 ballots in all. 

Three of our Experts rank “The Descendants” in first place. Let’s assume it makes the grade with 12% of the voters; that would give it 555 first place votes. That total also triggers the surplus rule with .76 of the vote going to “The Descendants” and .24 to the second place film. Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 134 ballots in all. 

Which films are likely to be listed second on those ballots that trigger the surplus rule? Do members who love “The Artist” like “Midnight in Paris” almost as much? Are those fans of “The Descendants” also enamored with “Moneyball“?

The Help,” “Hugo” and “War Horse” are each the first place pick of one of our pro pundits. Will any of them be tops with more than 10% of the academy members voting for the nominees? If so, their ballot totals will also trigger the surplus rule.

Those films listed in first on less than 1% of the ballots (in our scenario, that would be 46 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, 232 ballots) will be the Best Picture nominees. 

Among them, our 30 Experts are predicting 21 different films to be nominated for Best Picture. Of those with deep support, “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “The Help” make the grade with all of our Experts while “Hugo” got 29 votes and “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball” and “War Horse” each earned 28 votes. It would be a surprise if these seven films did not reap Best Picture nominations. 

That leaves, at best, three slots open. “The Tree of Life” is predicted by 22 of our Experts to contend. While it was snubbed by the PGA, it has significant critical support. It could well cobble together the 5% needed for a nod by a combination of first place votes and second place positioning behind films that trigger either the surplus or minimal rule. Likewise, “Bridesmaids,” which is predicted by 11 of our Experts to earn a Best Picture bid, could contend with that same formula of first and second place votes. It certainly got a boost with recognition from both SAG and PGA.  

At the shallow end of the pool, “50/50,” “J. Edgar,” “The Iron Lady,” “A Separation” and “Young Adult” are each predicted by just one pundit to reap a Best Picture nomination. Assuming each of these films is first choice for less than 1% of voters, which films will they list further down their ballot that will still be in play? 

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