2021 Oscars: Best Picture nominations voting and ballot counting explained in three easy steps

The upcoming release of the shortlists in nine Oscar categories on February 9 is a reminder that the nominations round of voting in 14 other races begins on March 5 and runs for just six days. In anticipation of that, let’s revisit the system by which the academy determines the Best Picture nominees. Alas, the process is not as simple as ticking just one box.

Academy members won’t merely cite their favorite films on a blank ballot that they complete online or ship back to the accountants when voting commences. Rather, they will rank up to five films on ballots which are then counted by a complicated method after nominations close on March 10. So, take a deep breath, as we dive into the Oscar pool.

While nominees in most of the other races are determined by the traditional system of preferential ballot that winnows the contenders down to a final five, the Best Picture finalists are arrived at by a separate system of tabulation.

All members of the academy will get to fill in nomination ballots for Best Picture and are asked to list up to five films. There will be between five and 10 nominees for Best Picture. To reap a bid, a film has to be one of the top choices of at least 5% of the members taking part in the nomination phase. To illustrate how this system works, let’s look at last year’s race when there ended up being nine nominees.

SEE 2021 Oscar nominations: Voting and ballot counting explained in three easy steps

We know that a record number of the then 8,469 members of the academy took part in the process. Let’s assume that 95% submitted their ballots; that would make for 8,045 ballots in all and 5% of this total is 402 votes.

There are three ways to get to 402:

– 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 second 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 with 95% of the eligible voters taking part, the initial threshold for a nomination — i.e, the magic number — is set at 770 votes (8,469 divided by 11 and rounded up). If each of 10 films reached this cut-off, they would account for 7,700 ballots, making it mathematically impossible for an 11th film to get the requisite first-place votes as there would only be 769 ballots left.

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. (For other categories, this trigger is set at 20%). The rationale for this rule is so that someone can vote for a hugely popular picture without fear that their ballot doesn’t matter.

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In our scenario — where the threshold is 770 first-place votes — the surplus rule would apply to those films which received at least 847 first-place votes. Each of those 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 if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film on the list that is still in play).

Those films that have less than 1% of the ballots following the surplus rule redistribution (in our scenario, that would be 81 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, 402 ballots) become the Best Picture nominees.

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 picks just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the one with the most votes.

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