Oscars mystery: Which Best Picture nominee got 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: “Birdman,” “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” 

While other Oscar bloggers posit that one of the other five Best Picture nominees — “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” or”Whiplash” — could win, such speculation belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how this system of preferential voting works. 

Once voting was over on Feb. 17, the accountants sorted the ballots into eight 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 ranked first on at least 50% + one of the ballots; if one had, that will be the Best Picture winner announced on Sunday.  

Failing this, the accountants looked to the film with the fewest first place votes and reapportioned those ballots to the second place choice. This process of elimination and reapportioning continued until one film reached 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. 

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 five nominees in first place? 

As a corollary, for one of those other five 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 5,818 of the 6,124 eligible voters and fifty percent + one of that = 2,910 ballots. 

For the sake of this simulation, let’s assume that each of our three top contenders is ranked first on 15% of all ballots (873 votes). This assumption seems reasonable given that “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” lead with the most Oscar nominations and the way they have split the guilds and precursors awards as well as critics prizes (where “Boyhood” dominated). With no film crossing the threshold of fifty percent plus one, the accountants began the process of elimination and reallocation. 

UPDATED: Experts’ Oscars predictions in 24 categories

Let’s say you loved “Selma” 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 eight nominees eliminated and those 291 ballots will be redistributed to the films listed in second place. 

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

Let’s assume “The Theory of Everything” had first place votes on 8% of the ballots (465 votes) and picked up 20% of the 291 “Selma” ballots — that gave it 523 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 “The Theory of Everything” what other nominee speaks to you most?

Is it “American Sniper,” which also explored a real-life hero and required a physical transformation for the lead actor? That film reaped six nominations in all, revealing an unexpected level of support among Oscar voters. Perhaps as many as 10% of all academy members were strongly backing this pony. That would give it 582 first place votes. Add to that one-third of those “Theory” ballots (155/465) and 10% of the “Selma” ballots (29/291) and this hit could be at upwards of 766 ballots (13% of all votes cast) at the beginning of the third round.

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

Perhaps another biopic, “The Imitation Game,” which also examines the life of someone suffering. 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 adapted screenplay), editors and director branches.  

Let’s say “The Imitation Game” also started out with 10% of the first place votes (582 votes). And during reallocation, it picked up one-third of the “American Sniper” first place ballots (194/582) plus 10% of each of the “Selma” ballots (29/291) and “Theory of Everything” ballots (47/465) for a total of 852 votes (15% of all votes cast). However, that still leaves it ranked last among the five films still in play, so another reallocation happens. Where do its ballots go?

Whiplash” is another intense drama about someone who does not fit in. Let’s assume it started out with 11% of the first place votes (640 votes) and picked up enough support from “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” and “American Sniper” to remain ahead of “The Imitation Game” at the end of this fourth round and move on to the final four. 

Were “Whiplash” 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 — “Birdman,” “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — has been picking up some support as the other nominees fall by the wayside. For example, if you ranked “Selma” first, then “The Theory of Everything,” “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game” at this point the accountants would be looking at what you have in fifth place. 

If “Whiplash” 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. 

See Oscar rankings when Experts’ predictions are combined

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

Could this support be enough for “Birdman” to edge ahead of either “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or “Boyhood” 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 “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” which of these was ranked higher by the “The Grand Budapest Hotel” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)? 

Likewise for “Birdman” vs. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — which of these films will appeal more to the “Boyhood” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)?

And if it comes down to “Boyhood” vs. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which one is likelier to be ranked higher by the “Birdman” 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 six 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. 

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