Oscar mystery: Which Best Picture nominee got those crucial second-place votes on the preferential ballot?

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: “The Big Short,” “The Revenant” and “Spotlight.” 

While other Oscar bloggers posit that one of the other five Best Picture nominees — “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Room” or “The Martian” — could win, such speculation belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how this system of preferential voting works. 

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Once voting was over on Feb. 23, 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 5,948 of the 6,261 eligible voters and fifty percent + one of that = 2,975 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 (892 votes). This assumption seems reasonable given that “The Revenant” leads with the most Oscar nominations and the way they have split the guilds and precursors awards as well as critics prizes (where “Spotlight” dominated). With no film crossing the threshold of fifty percent plus one, the accountants began the process of elimination and reallocation. 

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Let’s say you loved “Brooklyn” 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 297 ballots will be redistributed to the films listed in second place. 

While some of those “Brooklyn” 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 “Brooklyn” and then another film focused on a young woman, “Room.” 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 “Room” either first or second) are reallocated to the next film on these ballots still in play (thus, if you had “Room” first and “Brooklyn” second, the accountants will look to your third place pick.)

Let’s assume “Room” had first place votes on 8% of the ballots (476 votes) and picked up 20% of the 297 “Brooklyn” ballots — that gave it 535 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 “Room” what other nominee speaks to you most?

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Is it “Bridge of Spies,” a period piece about an little-known hero of American diplomacy? 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 595 first place votes. Add to that one-third of those “Room” ballots (178/535) and 10% of the “Brooklyn” ballots (30/297) and this hit could be at upwards of 803 ballots (13% of all votes cast) at the beginning of the third round.

However, even with this reallocation “Bridge of Spies” 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 “Room” and “Brooklyn” ballots) likely to have next among the five films still in the running?

Perhaps “The Martian,” which also examines the life of an unexpected hero. We know this film has strong support from the actors (Matt Damon is nominated), writers (it contends here for its adapted screenplay) and several creative branches.  

Let’s say “The Martian” also started out with 10% of the first place votes (595 votes). And during reallocation, it picked up one-third of the “Bridge of Spies” first place ballots (198/595) plus 10% of each of the “Brooklyn” ballots (30/297) and “Room” ballots (54/535) for a total of 877 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?

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“Mad Max: Fury Road” is another sci-fi flick. Let’s assume it started out with 11% of the first place votes (654 votes) and picked up enough support from “Brooklyn,” “Room” and “Bridge of Spies” to remain ahead of “The Martian” at the end of this fourth round and move on to the final four. 

Were “Mad Max: Fury Road” 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 — “The Big Short,” “The Revenant” and “Spotlight” — has been picking up some support as the other nominees fall by the wayside. For example, if you ranked “Brooklyn” first, then “Room,” “Bridge of Spies” and “The Martian” at this point the accountants would be looking at what you have in fifth place. 

If “Mad Max: Fury Road” 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. 

Doesn’t it seem reasonable to assume that the majority of voters who loved “Mad Max: Fury Road” enough to rank it first or relatively high will be almost as equally enthused about “The Revenant”? 

Click here to see ups and downs of Oscar races over entire awards season

Could this support be enough for “The Revenant” to edge ahead of either “The Big Short” or “Spotlight” 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 “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” which of these was ranked higher by “The Revenant” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)? 

Likewise for “The Big Short” vs. “The Revenant” — which of these films will appeal more to “Spotlight” voters (and all of the other eliminated nominees)?

And if it comes down to “The Revenant” vs. “Spotlight” which one is likelier to be ranked higher by “The Big Short” 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 in 2013), 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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