When the academy first used the preferential ballot to decide the Best Picture winner from 1934 to 1945, there were four years when the Best Director prize (which was decided by a plurality) went to the helmer of another film and eight when it did not (67% overlap). Since it was reintroduced in 2009, four Best Picture champs were also the best directed of the year and four were not (50% overlap). This year, “Moonlight” was named Best Picture (eventually) while “La La Land” helmer Damien Chazelle won Best Director.
Compare the stats above to the results in the 63 years from 1946 to 2008 when both Best Picture and Best Director were decided by a simple plurality: the films that took the top prize also claimed the helming award 50 times (79% overlap).
The winner of Best Director (and the other 22 Oscar categories) is the nominee who has the most votes. In the case of categories with five nominees, it is mathematically possible that the winner received just 20% plus one vote to prevail.
Under the preferential ballot system, the Best Picture winner is the film that ends the complicated counting with at least 50% plus one vote. This method of voting for the final Best Picture ballot was reintroduced in 2009, when the academy went to 10 nominees in this category for the first time since 1943. The rationale was that under a plurality system of counting, the winner among 10 contenders could well prevail with just 10% of the vote plus one. Indeed, in 2009 the academy explained it was going back to the preferential ballot as it “best allows the collective judgment of all voting members to be most accurately represented.”
This system was kept in place in 2011 when the number of nominees shifted to somewhere between five and 10. Since then, there have been four years (2011, 2012, 2013, 2016) with nine Best Picture nominees and two (2014, 2015) with eight.
It is possible under the current system of counting for nominations that there will only be five Best Picture nominees. Would (or should) the preferential ballot be used in that instance? The academy used the preferential ballot for the first two years of a fixed five Best Picture nominees in 1944 and 1945 but switched to a plurality beginning in 1946 and stuck with it till 2008.
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