There can 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. (See explanation of the counting for other categories here.)
To illustrate how the system for Best Picture works, let's look at the 2011 race where there ended up being nine nominees.
Oscar nomination ballots for Best Picture were sent to 6,028 members of the Academy with instructions to list up to five films.
Let's assume that 80% of members submitted their ballots by the deadline; that would make for 4,822 ballots in all and 5% of this total is 241 votes.
There are three ways to get to our magic number of 241:
– 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, the initial threshold for a nomination is set at 439 votes (4,822 divided by 11 and rounded up). If each of 10 films reached this cut-off, they would account for 4,390 ballots, making it mathematically impossible for an eleventh film to get 439 first place votes.
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, the trigger is 20%).
In our scenario — where the threhold is 439 votes — this would apply to those films which received at least 463 first place votes. Each of these 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).
Of our 30 Experts, 23 had "The Artist" in first place. Let's assume it was tops on 15% of the ballots returned; that would give it 694 first place votes. It only needs 421 first place votes to reach the initial threshold so each ballot is apportioned with .61 of the vote going to "The Artist" and .39 to the second place film if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film listed which is still in play). Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 273 ballots in all.
Three of our Experts ranked "The Descendants" in first place. Let's assume it made the grade with 12% of the voters; that would give it 555 first place votes. That total also triggers the surplus rule with .76 of the vote going to "The Descendants" and .24 to the second place film if it is still in play (otherwise to the next film listed which is still in play). Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 134 ballots in all.
Which films were likely to be listed second on those ballots that trigger the surplus rule? Did members who love "The Artist" like "Midnight in Paris" almost as much? Were those fans of "The Descendants" also enamored with "Moneyball"?
Those films listed in first on less than 1% of the ballots (in our scenario, that would be 46 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, 232 ballots) will be the Best Picture nominees.
Among them, our 30 Experts were predicting 21 different films to be nominated for Best Picture. Of those with deep support, "The Artist," "The Descendants" and "The Help" make the grade with all of our Experts while "Hugo" got 29 votes and "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball" and "War Horse" each earned 28 votes. All seven of these films reaped Best Picture nominations.
That left, at best, three slots open.
"The Tree of Life" was predicted by 22 of our Experts to contend. While it was snubbed by the PGA, it has significant critical support. It cobbled together the 5% needed for a nod by a combination of first place votes and second place positioning behind films that trigger either the surplus or minimal rule.
The surprise nominee was "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" which also reached the requisite 5% threshold.
Unlike the winners of the other categories which are determined by popular vote — i.e, a voter picks just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the that nominee with the most votes — the winner of Best Picture is arrived at by a more complicated system. The academy uses preferential voting, as it does to determine nominees in most other races, to determine the winner of Best Picture.
This method of voting was reintroduced in 2009, when the academy went to 10 Best Picture nominees for the first time since 1943 and was kept it in place in 2010 when the number of nominees was to be somewhere between five and 10. The academy believes this "best allows the collective judgment of all voting members to be most accurately represented."
The preferential method was first used in 1934 when there were 12 Best Picture nominees (there had been between three and 10 in the first six years of the Academy Awards) and was used the following year when there were again 12 nominees, from 1936 to 1943 when there were 10 nominees, and in both 1944 and 1945 when there were just five contenders.
Voters rank the Best Picture nominees. If one nominee garners more than 50% of the first place votes, it will win Best Picture.
If, as is more likely, no nominee reaches this threshold, the film with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, with its ballots being reapportioned to the second place choice.
Should no film cross the required 50% + one ballot threshold, the film with the fewest first place votes is again elminated, with its ballots being apportioned to the next choice still in play (i.e., if the second place choice is no longer in the running, then the ballot would be reapportioned to the third place choice and so on.)
This process of elimination and reapportion continues until one film reaches at least 50% + one ballots. That is the Best Picture winner.