Two precursor prizes — the Golden Globes and SAG Awards — announce their roster of nominees during the week of February 1. The Globes will be handed out at the end of the month, six days before Oscar nominations commences. Voting runs through March 10, with nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards announced five days later.
While the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars are determined by a different complicated counting method, the contenders in acting, directing, writing and the craft categories (except makeup/hairstyling and visual effects) will be selected under the preferential system that has been in place for years.
To illustrate how that system works, let’s apply it to last year’s Best Actress race.
Between our experts (journalists who cover this beat year-round), website editors and readers like you, we cast 12,417 nomination ballots for Best Actress. (By comparison, the actors branch of the academy had 1,324 members last year.) As per the preferential system, we sorted these ballots by first choice and only those women listed at the top of at least one ballot continued on in the process.
There are five nominees for Best Actress. In our scenario, the initial threshold — i.e., magic number — for a nomination was set at 2,071 votes (i.e., 12,417 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five women reaches this cut-off, they will account for 10,355 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actress to get more than 2,062 votes.
Renee Zellweger (“Judy”) had 5,856 first-place votes and earned a bid (as she did in the actual nominations). Usually, these ballots would be set to one side at this point.
However, this newly minted nominee was so popular that she reaped at least 20% more first place votes than needed to be nominated — in our scenario that is 2,485 — thus triggering the surplus rule (Best Picture balloting invokes the surplus rule with a 10% excess). The rationale for this rule is to ensure that someone can vote for a hugely popular contender without fear that their ballot doesn’t matter.
When this happens, the ballots for this nominee are apportioned as follows: a share goes to the nominee such that they reach the needed number for a nomination and the remaining share goes to the actress below her on the ballot who is still in the running and not yet nominated.
Zellweger only needed 2,071 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of her 5,856 votes is apportioned with .354 of the vote staying with her and .646 going to the actress listed in second place, assuming she got at least one first-place vote from someone to remain eligible and is not already deemed to be a nominee. Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 3,785 ballots in all.
Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”) had 3,605 first-place votes. As with Zellweger, that haul triggered the surplus rule, with a split of .574 for Theron and .426 for the second-place choice.
And so ends round one with two of the five slots filled.
Before beginning round two, a new second threshold needs to be calculated based on the ballots remaining in the process and the number of nominees still left to be determined.
We started with 12,417 ballots and have removed 9,461 [5,856 (Zellweger) + 3,605 (Theron)] leaving 2,956.
As there are three spots left, we divide these 2,956 ballots by four and round up giving us a new second threshold of 740. If three actresses each got this many votes they would account for 2,220 votes, leaving only 736 in play.
Scarlett Johansson (“The Favourite”) had 1,212 votes initially and would have become the third nominee at this stage.
Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”) came into this round with 173 first-place votes. Perhaps she received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing Zellweger and Theron first to reach this new threshold to become the fourth nominee, as she was in actuality.
Before beginning round three, a new third threshold is calculated. We remove Johansson’s 1,212 ballots and Ronan’s 173 from the 2,956 that were in play, leaving a new total of 1,571. With one spot left, we divide that by two and round up for a new third threshold of 786. If one actress achieves this, there will only be 785 votes in play.
At this point, the accountants redistribute the ballots of the actress with the fewest first-place votes to the next actress further down on the ballot who is still in search of a nomination.
The accountants look on each of these ballots for the next highest-ranked actress still in the running. This will be done with the ballots of each actress who has the least first-place votes until someone reaches the new threshold of 839.
The eventual fifth nominee was Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet?”), who started with just 45 votes. That was fewer than both Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”) and Awkwafina (“The Farewell”) who had 129 and 128 votes respectively.
While the Best Picture champ is determined by a version of this preferential system, the winners of the other races are those that top the popular vote — i.e, a voter chooses just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the that nominee with the most votes.
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