5 Things You Might Not Know About Oscar Ballots

From the color-coding to a special message to the actors, here’s what’s inside those envelopes that were mailed this week

Now that the Oscar ballots have arrived in most voters' mailboxes, let's take a closer look at just what's inside those vaunted envelopes.

Because, after all, we all spend lots of time scrutinizing the results of what gets written on the ballots – but unless you're an observant Academy member, there are probably a few things you don't know about the ballots themselves.

(Apologies if you were reading this column around this time last year, in which case some of this might sound familiar.)

Oscar ballots 20101. THE BALLOTS ARE COLOR-CODED TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR THE ACCOUNTANTS.

Counting Oscar ballots involves opening thousands of envelops, and stacking thousands of pieces of paper on tables by hand. If all those papers were the same color, the already-complicated process could turn into a nightmare, even in the hands of the no-doubt hyper-efficient PriceWaterhouseCoopers Oscar team.

So the ballots come color-coded: white for the Best Picture ballot, which every AMPAS voter receives, and different hues for the categories with ballots that go out only to specific branches: gray for Best Director, pink for Best Cinematography, tan for the acting categories … 

And since the Academy is a tradition-bound organization, those colors remain the same year after year.

2. A NEW WRINKLE: IT'LL COST LESS IN POSTAGE TO VOTE THIS YEAR THAN IT HAS IN PREVIOUS YEARS.

In past years, most voters were asked to send those color-coded ballots back to PwC in two separate envelopes: green ones for Best Picture ballots, buff ones for everything else.

This year, though, AMPAS is going green by getting rid of the green. Voters are asked to place both their Best Picture ballots and the ballots for their branch's category in the same buff envelope, and mail them back together. Half the postage, half the envelopes, half the trash.

(Actually, not quite half: the producers, executives and public relations branches, as well as members-at-large, always only nominated in the Best Picture category. So those members will produce the same amount of paper as before.)

3. IN ONLY ONE CATEGORY DO POTENTIAL NOMINEES GET THEIR NAMES ON THE BALLOT.

In the acting categories, voters are asked to write the name of the actor and the name of the film. But in every other category, they’re only supposed to write the name of the movie. Do you love David Fincher? Don't write his name, write "The Social Network." Think Roger Deakins was the year's best cinematographer? Then you'd better write down "True Grit."

Voters in every category but Best Picture and the acting categories also receive a "reminder list" of the films that are eligible in their category. But none of those lists contain individual names – instead, they’re made up exclusively of film titles. (Best Picture and actors branch voters are referred to the longer list of eligible films, which is posted on the AMPAS website and sent as a separate booklet.)

4. 248 MOVIES MIGHT HAVE QUALIFIED FOR THE OSCARS … BUT ONLY IN ONE-FOURTH OF THE 24 CATEGORIES.

Yes, as the Academy announced a few days before Christmas, 248 films are eligible for Oscars in 2010. And every one of them, from "The A-Team" to "Youth in Revolt," is in the running for Best Picture. But that doesn’t mean they’re all eligible in the other categories.

In the four acting categories, for instance, you can eliminate the 16 documentaries that don’t have casts listed. In the costume design category, animated films and documentaries aren't eligible; for art direction, docs aren't but animated films are.

Out of the 15 categories for which ballots were mailed this week, all 248 films are eligible in six: Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. In the acting categories, 232 different films – and thousands of actors – are competing. Costume Design has 209 eligible films, Art Direction 234.

In the Original Screenplay category, 134 films qualified; in Adapted Screenplay, it's 107. And Original Score has the smallest of the lot, with only 77 qualifying entries.

The number of entries vary in the nine categories for which ballots were not mailed: Animated Feature (by far the smallest field, with 15 qualifiers), Foreign-Language Film, Documentary Feature and Documentary Short, Live-Action and Animated Short, Original Song, Makeup and Visual Effects.

Bonus factoid: A few times, I've (half-jokingly) mentioned that Joaquin Phoenix should get Best Actor consideration for acting like an imbecile in public during the making of the faux documentary "I'm Still Here." But it turns out that Phoenix, and that film itself, aren't eligible for anything at all: it apparently wasn't submitted, and doesn't appear on any of the reminder lists.

Actors branch letter5. THE ACTORS BRANCH IS SPECIAL.

Or maybe I should say that the actors branch gets  something special.

All voters receive a letter from AMPAS president Tom Sherak stressing the importance and the responsibility of voting, and giving a brief rundown of the preferential system of ballot-counting.

But the actors branch gets an extra enclosure: a letter from its three governors (Tom Hanks, Annette Bening and Ed Begley Jr.) explaining that they are the one branch tasked not just with choosing the best achievements, but also determining the category to which those achievements belong. "[T]he determination of whether a given role belongs in the 'Leading' or 'Supporting' category … is unique to our branch," the letter reads, before adding – in red type, no less – that members are not to be swayed by "for your consideration" ads, or by the judgments of any other "organization that presents motion picture awards."

And for voters who aren't sure in which category a performance belongs, the letter even suggests an option: cover your bets by voting for it in both categories. If it gets enough votes to qualify in both, PwC will record the nomination in whichever category it has the most support.

As for what happens with those ballots when they get back to the accountants' offices, we've waded into those deep waters before … and we'll no doubt be back there again soon.