MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

1 Week To 20 Weeks To Oscar: Counting Best Picture Ballots

So I’m a week from writing the weekly column… but the one issue that seems to keep cropping up is how the change in the Best Picture vote accounting rules really works. Steve Pond did a nice job trying to lay it all out when it happened. But people still seem to be unsure what is really up. So I had a chat with AMPAS’ Ric Robertson and Leslie Unger in the name of clarity. This is where I landed…

1. No speculation is 100% certain, except that we will have between 5 and 10 nominees for Best Picture.
You can parse statistics until the cows come home. So yes, votes beyond the #2 choice could matter. And we could still have 10 nominees. We could also have 5, though The Academy, by way of its 8-year analysis by its accounting firm, seems to feel pretty sure that 6-9 is the realistic expectation moving forward.

2. Academy members will be asked to vote for their Top 5 in Best Picture.
Voters stressed about picking 10 movies. Many didn’t complete their ballots. This year, we’re back to 5 choices.

3. In spite of protests by The Academy, reality suggests clearly that your #3 vote is very unlikely to be tallied and your #4 and #5 votes are almost certain to be irrelevant.

The #3 votes on ballots will only be counted in the adjustment phase and only if the #1 and #2 votes are for films that are either already nominated or receive fewer than 1% of the #1 votes on all the ballots received.

So if you voted #1 and #2 for the most popular films, each of which qualifies for a nomination in the first count, your weighted #3 vote would be counted…unless it too was already a nominee or had already been disqualified for having fewer #1 votes than 1% of the total number of ballots submitted. Then we’d move to the #4 vote… a real rarity.

Conversely, if your #1 vote was DQed because fewer than 1% of voters gave it a #1 vote and your #2 vote was either already a nominee or was also DQed, they would go to your #3 vote… and so on.

The only exception to this being the only way your #4 or lower vote would be counted is if, by some fluke, the process would have to fail to get at least 5 nominees earning at least 5% of the vote each after adjustments were made to the initial round. The odds against this are very, very high.

4. The Process.

I will try to keep this simple.

The ballots come in. Piles are made for each film based on the #1 vote.

With a group of, say, 3500 votes (that was the number that came up in conversation), a film needs 319 #1 votes to get a nomination. If you have 319 #1s at that point, you are in.

There aren’t likely to be more than a couple of those. And now, two adjustments are made to the count.

Adjustment A – Any titles that have fewer than 35 #1 votes (1% of 3500, in this example) are automatically eliminated from consideration. And all the #2 votes from the ballots whose #1 choices have been eliminated accrue to those #2 titles as full votes.

Adjustment B – Any titles that have more than the 9.1% of all #1 votes (qualifying it for a nomination) plus another 1.8% – 10.9% of all #1 votes in total – will see the #2 votes from those ballots counted and added to the adjusted totals for those #2 titles, but with each vote valued as a percent of a vote. The percentage value given to each of those #2 votes is based on the percentage of #1 votes that secure nomination (about 9.1%) vs the balance, aka the overage.

If a film qualifies for nomination, but doesn’t have an overage greater than 1.8% of the total ballots, its ballots are not part of the adjustment. So, for instance, a flat 10% of ballots have a movie as #1, it has a nod, but it has no further influence. Score 11% of the #1s and about 20% of those ballots’ #2 votes will be counted in the adjustment.

So… if SuperMovie gets 500 #1 votes out of 3500 in this example, that’s 181 – or 36% – more than it needs for the nomination. All the ballots with SuperMovie in the #1 slot would have their #2 votes counted and those votes would accrue to those #2 movies, each vote counting as 36% of a vote. You need, basically, 3 Adjustment B votes to move your overall total by 1 full vote.

Those 181 partial votes, in the example above, are worth, in the adjustment, 65 full votes.

5.The Standard For Nomination Is lowered.

It’s not a lowered standard, really… it’s actually higher than it was last year, for instance. But the initial standard of 9.1% of #1 votes to get a nomination is off the table at this point. In the adjusted count, you need just 5% of the overall vote. This is when most nominees will qualify.

Using the the 3500 ballot example, 5% is only 176 full votes.

If you had those 176 #1 votes in the first, unadjusted count, you can pretty much count on being a nominee. The reason that the rules just don’t say that is that there could be – COULD BE – more than 10 films, each with 5% or more of the adjusted vote. At that point, the top 10 adjusted vote-getters are in. And that film with 176 #1s could do so poorly in the adjustment that it could be passed by the other films. But it’s very, very, very unlikely.

6. So, how many #1 votes must you have to get a nomination based on the adjustments?

The only requirement, in terms of #1s, is that you have more #1 votes than 1% of the total ballots. Using my 3500 ballot example, that’s at least 35 #1 votes. If there are 5000 ballots submitted, it’s 50 #1 votes. But the bar is pretty low.

With just 35 #1 votes and the adjustments, you are still in the game. A nomination wouldn’t be easy, but it would be possible.

There are over 200 movies qualified for Best Picture each year. The heavy focus is on about 15-20 of them by the time nomination voting happens. But with 90% of the titles in theoretical also-ran status, how many #1 votes will get redistributed under Adjustment A? The Academy says that they did not ask Price Waterhouse Coopers to give them that statistic. So what do we think? 10%? More?

10%, in my 3500-ballot example, is 350 votes that go into the mix based on the #2 choice… or almost twice as many as a film needs to get nominated.

And how many full votes can come out of the Adjustment B system? 50 – 100 seems like a reasonable estimate.

So there may be, conservatively, 450 full votes – using my 3500-ballot example – up for grabs and getting value out of the #2 and even the #3 slots. Get 31% of the adjusted votes (141) and you could be nominated with just 35 #1s (using the 3500 ballot example).

More likely, titles that have more than 100 #1 votes (in this 3500 ballot example) will be filling out their 176 vote dance card by way of the adjustments.

Here’s the point. Most of the nominees will not be getting in with #1 votes only. Those #2 votes and even, potentially, those #3 votes will be the ticket to a nomination for a number of films.

If, in late December, it looks like there are a couple of real frontrunners, it will behoove the other film pushers to say, “Okay… vote for your favorite… but please, vote for my film as your #2.” If you don’t have 9.1% of the #1s, that is your only realistic road to a nomination.

6. Explain again, will #4 or #5 votes EVER be counted?

Okay… for clarity. The only way #4 or #5 choices will ever be counted if the following events take place:
a. the #1 selection is either disqualified with under 1% of the #1 vote on all the ballots or qualified as a nominee on first count with 20% more votes than needed to qualify.
b. the #2 selection is either disqualified with under 1% of the #1 vote on all the ballots or qualified as a nominee on first count with 20% more votes than needed to qualify.
c. the #3 selection is either disqualified with under 1% of the #1 vote on all the ballots or qualified as a nominee on first count with 20% more votes than needed to qualify.

In other words, you need to be 3 times lucky or unlucky for your #4 vote to be considered. It could be a combination of both. So you #1 could be DQed, then your #2 overqualified for nomination, and then your #3 another under-1% DQ. Or some other combination.

So it could happen. But it is unlikely to happen with too many voters.

7. What about my ballot being disregarded in total?

Well, with due respect to Steve Pond – especially as he used MCN’s Critics Top Ten lists to do his study on the issue – the notion of ballots being “discarded” or”unused” is a bit overly dramatic. If, indeed, your #1 vote lands in the no man’s land between 1% of the ballots and 5% of the ballots, your vote may not nominate a film or be redistributed in one of the adjustment cycles.

But I’m not convinced that the change in methodology will increase the count of ballots living in that no man’s land. And having your vote counted for a film that doesn’t get nominated is not the same thing as having your ballot discarded or unused.

If you have voted a no man’s land movie as your #1 – and most films that end up nominated are likely to be there before the adjustments – you still have a shot at nomination by adjustment. As I wrote above, if you have the very minimum of #1 votes to stay alive, you can still get a nomination on adjustments.

So yeah… wouldn’t count on your #3 or #4 or #5 vote counting. But I don’t buy that anyone is being disenfranchised by voting #1 for a movie that is more popular than 85% of the qualified movies or better and that movie not being nominated. I don’t know any system that assures that one of your choices is guaranteed to be part of a winning effort.

Yes, 10 nominees means more people are likely to have their vote go to a nominee… because there are more assured nominees. If they went to 20 nominees, very few Academy members wouldn’t have a winning vote on their ballot… in this system or the older system.

8. What Will Happen?

The clear answer is that we do not know. The Academy’s internal study didn’t take into account changes in voting during the two years of the 10 nominee system. Nor did they take into consideration how people thought about their votes when they knew there were only 5 nominees.

How voters perceive the value of their votes is a major issue, even if The Academy has decided not to consider it. “I don’t want to waste my vote” is an often-heard mantra. The one excellent thing about the current system is that if you vote for the front-runner, there is a good chance that your #2 vote will also help that #2 film’s chances of getting in… in other words, neither you nor your #2 pick are really penalized for a #1 vote being part of a big crowd.

The big question for me is not the math for less sure-bet titles, but the mentality of the voters. It doesn’t really matter if the math is the same, a vote for what feels like a borderline movie may feel more like a wasted vote knowing that it’s chasing a blurry number of votes rather than a sure 10 nominees.

The Academy would argue that people should just vote their hearts and not worry about any of this. But, for better or worse, this does not reflect human nature.

9. What & How Many Will Get Nominated?

Again, unknown. And I don’t think guessing at the number will ever be anything much more than guessing. Too many variables.

But… I do think some “smaller” films will pay the price for this.

I was right and others were wrong about the move to 10 films resulting in more “small” films being honored. Personally, I don’t see any upside in this change. I suspect it will only hurt the better films that don’t have the Oscar marketing budgets to fight the studio product and will end up with 2% or 35 of the vote because they couldn’t convince voters that a vote for that small film is a vote that will “count.” But being right once before doesn’t mean anything in this situation. I could be dead wrong and others absolutely right about what will come of this new system. No one can really know.

I do know, however, that the push for #1 votes will be more intense than ever. And I’m not sure that was really what The Academy intended either.

Personally, I would say, “Vote for your Top 5,” weight the votes, and get nominees with the requirement that the average vote to get nominated past the first 5 slots would be a required 3.75 rating (or some # like that). And I would open it up to more than 10 nominees. If you can limit it, you should be able to expand it in an extraordinary year. It’s so much simpler… everyone is included without question… and you entire top 3 is counted. If you really love movies and have seen a lot of the titles in the race each year, can you really be so definitive about one title? Does that really feel right?

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10 Responses to “1 Week To 20 Weeks To Oscar: Counting Best Picture Ballots”

  1. sanj says:

    this confuses me – can’t you get some easy chart to explain this ?

    playing the lotto odds seems easier than this .

  2. KMS says:

    Sounds like Mulholland Drive and Eternal Sunshine might have been nominated for Best Pic under these rules.

  3. movielocke says:

    fascinating, glad to have that cleared up.

    So the press release was wildly wrong. It’s one percent of first place votes, not five percent.

    How come first place votes aren’t mentioned at all in the official rules?

  4. David Poland says:

    The 1% issue and the 5% issue are different issues.

    Under 1% of #1 votes gets a title disqualified.

    But you need 5% of the adjusted vote to get in.

    As I note, the likelihood of getting in with just 1% of the #1 votes and the adjustments is low, but it is possible.

    If it was as simple as needing 5% of the #1 votes, that would be easier… but we’d probably be short of the 5 nominations.

    So yes… the press release oversimplified it.

    From the “Special Rules” section: “no picture shall be nominated that receives less than five percent of the total votes cast.”

    As for what is printed in the general rules, I believe they use the blanket of “In the nominations voting, the marking and tabulation of all ballots shall be according to the preferential or weighted average system” to not offer up all the math.

  5. Steve Pond says:

    Exactly. “According to the preferential or weighted average system” covers a multitude of intricacies they’d rather not try to explain.

  6. movielocke says:

    This all makes so much more sense, btw. The press release implied a pretty extreme change from the established procedures. This is more like a relatively minor procedural tweak that’s meant to keep films with soft support from appearing to have strong support and earning a nomination.

    Such speculation is naturally useless, because we don’t know anything but I think this is more of a ‘get animation out of Best Picture’ rule. The animators I know have been putting their own film first and then a couple other animated films second and third or even fourth on their best picture ballots. That pretty much meant that all the animated votes were staying together as the votes were redistributed. If the trend held true it would mean an animated film nominated for best picture virtually every year. This won’t make it impossible for an animated film to make it best picture, but it will certainly make it tougher. They still have the numbers to get it most years if the trend holds true, but with submitting a ballot of just five films it makes it tougher for animators to stack the top of the ballot. There’s a lot less room for error in the animators branch now, so I think an animated film making it into the BP race is now like a 25% shot on average, rather than 95% shot in the system of the last two years. Pixar and Dreamworks have enough employee votes, probably, to ensure they meet the 1% of #1 rule every year, but the five percent requirement makes it quite a bit tougher to secure the nomination, I think.

  7. movielocke says:

    random aside, but if the Gurus are coming out next week or soon, two questions I’d find very interesting to know the gurus answers to (just the number, no need for lists):

    How many of the 83 Best Picture winners have you seen?

    How many of the 485 Best Picture nominees have you seen?

  8. Danny says:

    David, in Adjustment B you write:
    “Score 11% of the #1s and about 20% of those ballots’ #2 votes will be counted in the adjustment.”
    That can’t be accurate. They wouldn’t just randomly choose 20% of those ballots’ #2 votes and ignore the other 80%. Doesn’t it mean that all of that ballot stack’s #2 votes will be distributed, but only count as a 1/5 vote each. You would need 5 of those #2s to make a full vote. In other words, the greater the % of #1 votes a popular movie gets, the larger the fraction the apportioned #2 votes of that movie’s ballot stack becomes.

  9. David Poland says:

    Yes, Danny. Thanks for clarifying.

  10. Greg Baine says:

    ? Just count votes.


Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon