Oscars Best Picture Ballot: Don’t Believe the Schmucks

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the Oscar Best Picture ballot. We set the record straight

I know I should just give up, but I can't.

A year and a half after the Academy went to a different system for counting Best Picture ballots, nominees and voters and campaigners still don't understand how it works. And it's driving me crazy.

Best Picture ballotThe latest example: I went to a party over the weekend, and heard a producer who'd gotten a Best Picture nomination telling people, "It's a weighted ballot. You need to vote for [my movie] number one, and [our biggest competitor] number 10."

He's wrong.

It's not a weighted ballot.

And his strategy would not do a damn thing to help his movie.

This is the same kind of dumb campaigning that lost "Hurt Locker" producer Nicolas Chartier his tickets to last year's Oscar show. Now, Chartier pushed his strategy (which was to ask people to rank his movie first, and "Avatar" last) in emails, which is worse than doing so verbally because it's a far more blatant campaign violation.

But no matter whether it's done via email or whispers at parties, the bottom line remains the same: it won't work.

I've written about it here, and here, and here, and some other places as well. But I'll explain it again.

The Oscar Best Picture Ballot, which is counted by PricewaterhouseCoopers using the preferential process, lists the 10 nominees and asks voters to rank them one through 10.

The accountants sort the ballots into stacks based on the film ranked first on each ballot. If one film doesn't have more than 50% of the vote, the nominee with the fewest number-one votes is eliminated, and its votes go to the film ranked second on each of its ballots.

This process continues, with the weakest remaining competitor eliminated and its ballots redistributed, until one film has more than 50 percent. The result will be the one film with the truest consensus support.

It is NOT a weighted ballot. It does NOT allocate 10 points to your number one choice, nine points to number two, etc. You CANNOT hurt your top choice by ranking its biggest competitor second.

And anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.   

The main thing to keep in mind when you fill out a Best Picture ballot is that you are simply casting one vote, for one movie. That vote goes to the movie ranked first on your ballot, and it stays there until that movie has either won, or been eliminated from contention.

If your favorite is eliminated, then and only then  will the vote shift to your second choice. If this happens, you can rest assured that you had absolutely nothing to do with your top choice being knocked out, and there's not a thing you could have done to prevent it (short of persuading more people to vote for your movie).

You can never hurt the movie ranked first on your ballot because of anything you do with the rankings below it, because those rankings simply don’t come into play unless your top choice is out of the running.

(The system essentially uses the ballots to ask every voter, "Which is your favorite out of these 10 movies?" It collects the answers, then eliminates the film with the smallest amount of support and asks a new question: "What is your favorite out of these nine remaining movies?" Then "What's your favorite out of these eight?" "Out of these seven?" "These six?" It's the only category on the ballot where if your first choice doesn't win, you get more chances to make your vote count.)

So if, for instance, your favorite movie of the year is "The Social Network" and your second-favorite is "The King's Speech," rank them that way. That #2 vote for "King's Speech" can't help it defeat "Social Network" under any circumstances. If "Social Network" is eliminated through no fault of yours, then you still have a chance to help your second-favorite movie defeat something that you liked less but would have ranked higher if you were trying to get cute with your ballot.

And in the end, if it really does come down to "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" as the last two films standing, the only thing that matters is which film is ranked higher on the majority of ballots. It won't make a bit of difference if "The Social Network" is first and "The King's Speech" 10th, or if "TSN" is first and "TKS" second, or if "TSN" is eighth and "TKS" ninth. In each case, the ballot counts exactly the same: as one vote for "The Social Network."

If you're in a two-picture race and your goal is to make sure your film wins, all you need to do is get lots of people to rank it first – and get the ones who don’t rank it first to put it ahead of its rival. Telling voters that they also have to rank that rival last is a waste of time, unless your secondary goal is to influence what you lose to.

One of the beauties of the preferential Best Picture tally is that it truly does eliminate the need to play games with your ballot. Don't believe the schmucks who tell you otherwise.

So let's make this easy. Look at that list of 10 movies. (You've seen them all, right? As an Academy member, that's pretty much your duty.) In the circle next to the one you like the best, write the number 1. In the circle next to the one you like second-best, write 2. Keep going until you get to the one you like the least. Write 10 next to that one.

It's that simple. Really.

Please don't make me say this again.