New Best Picture Rules Could Discard Large Number of Oscar Ballots (Exclusive)

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Exclusive: The new rules for Best Picture nominations could dramatically change the number of voters whose ballots influence the slate of nominees

EXCLUSIVE

A significant number of Best Picture ballots could end up essentially discarded as the result of the new Best Picture rules instituted by the Academy last week, TheWrap has discovered.

The Academy conceded that an increased number of ballots will no longer influence the slate of Best Picture nominees, but said its figures put the potential number of those ballots at less than 10 percent.

On the other hand, a simulation done by TheWrap (using critics' Top 10 lists rather than real Oscar ballots) shows the number of "unused" ballots topping 25 percent under the new rules.

The good news is that the new system brings some needed unpredictability to the Best Picture race, and guarantees that every nominee has a significant level of voter support.

But the new rules could very well change Oscar campaigning, hurt consensus movies that would have fared well in the past, and essentially take the decision out of the hands of hundreds of Academy members in the Oscars' marquee category.

Also read: Academy's Best-Pic Change: A Smart Way to Fix Something That Wasn't Broken

This impact has not been publicly discussed since the Board of Governors agreed on the new rules on June 14. But the Academy's outgoing executive director Bruce Davis, who proposed the system after consultation with the AMPAS accountants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, admitted to TheWrap that more voters "have lost their chance to influence the nominations slate" under the new rules, adding, "we're accepting that as one of the givens of the new system."

He also told TheWrap via email, "It's not as though those voters have been disenfranchised. They had a fair chance to help choose a nominee, but not enough other voters shared their admiration for their top-line film. Their situation is similar to that of a voter who endorses the least successful, most outlying candidate in a political primary.

"He voted his heart the first time around and lost, but he'll have another chance in the next round of voting to indicate which of the more mainstream candidates he most prefers."

Exact figures are impossible to come by, since PwC doesn't share them with the public. But under the old system, according to simulations conducted by TheWrap, the Best Picture count could last for 10 rounds or more, and eventually almost every ballot would be used. The new system ends after a single round of counting and redistribution, before many ballots can come into play.

In addition, while voters are asked to list up to 10 films in order of preference, the new system will place enormous weight on a voter's first choice, and make all but the first two or three choices meaningless in the vast majority of cases.

(An aside: I support the change to a variable slate of five to 10 nominees, and think the new rule is a smart one that corrects a flaw in the decision to move to 10 nominations. But it comes with significant ramifications, and they need to be grasped and discussed.)

To understand how the changes will impact the process, you need to understand the existing process. I've tried to explain it here, and demonstrate it here, and I'll go into detail about the process later in this story.

Also read: Revealed: How Oscar Nominee Ballots Are Counted

First, though, here are some of the things I found when I took 156 critics' Top 10 ballots for 2010, as compiled by Movie City News, and tallied them using both the old Best-Picture system and the new one:

THE GAP

Nominations announcementUsing the old system, my 2010 simulation took 11 rounds to produce 10 Best Picture nominees. At the end of those 11 rounds, only 10 ballots (six percent of the total) had been discarded, because those critics opted entirely for films that ended up out of the running.

The new system, though, uses just one round of counting and redistribution to come up with the nominees. Using that system, a full 43 ballots, representing almost 28 percent of the total vote, ended up having no impact on the slate of nominees.

Critics who voted for "The King's Speech" or "The Social Network" helped their top choices get nominated. Ones who went for "Biutiful" or "Shutter Island" had their ballots redistributed to help out another pick. But the ballots of critics whose top picks were "True Grit," "Blue Valentine," "The Kids Are All Right" and 17 other films were left sitting on the table.

Because they voted for the 21 films that fell into the gap between one and five percent of the vote — which is to say, because they voted for films that narrowly missed being nominated — they were unable to influence the outcome the way they would have under the old process, when those films would eventually have been eliminated and the ballots redistributed to help each voter's other selections. 

I did the same kind of simulation with MCN's 2009 critics' lists, and the results were similar: the number of unused ballots went from well under 10 percent to more than 25 percent.

(Certainly, you can't draw direct comparisons between tallying 156 critics lists and 5,000 Oscar ballots; the critics, for one thing, are more likely to champion obscure films than Academy members, which might well lead to higher levels of unused ballots. And Davis insisted that Academy figures place their number of unused ballots at less than 10 percent under the new system.  But my demonstration makes it clear that stopping after one round will increase the number of Academy voters whose ballots don't affect the results, and Davis did not dispute that finding.)

MOVIN' ON UP? NOT ANYMORE

When I tallied the ballots under the new system, "Toy Story 3" squeaked in as the eighth and final nominee, with 6.6 percent of the total.

But when I counted those same ballots using the old system, both "The Ghost Writer" and "Dogtooth" leap-frogged "Toy Story" in the later rounds of voting, landing nominations courtesy of redistributed votes from other films as they were eliminated.

Under the new count, the redistributed votes that helped those films move up and secure nominations would never have come into play.

THE PRIME NUMBER

In the old system, a ballot could be redistributed several times, with its vote progressively going from the movie listed first to the one listed second, third, fourth or even lower.

Best-Pic ballotUnder the new rules, though, the chances for those lower choices to come into play are reduced dramatically. In my 2010 simulation, fewer than half the ballots were redistributed at all — and on the ones that were, the majority simply had their vote moved from the critic's first choice to his or her second.

A voter's first choice has always been the most important choice; now, in many cases, it's the only choice that matters. For studios and Oscar campaigners, this means that it's no longer a productive strategy to urge voters to list you among their top few  choices. If you want to survive that first round and land a nomination, you need to be the first  choice.

The Academy is aware of these ramifications, and I'm sure the governors took it into account in what was by all accounts a lengthy discussion before adopting the new rule. I also suspect that PwC had figures to show that stopping after one round wouldn't dramatically alter the results most years, other than creating a higher bar for Best Picture nominees to reach.

But when one of the privileges of Academy membership is the ability to influence the slate of movies that will come to represent the year's best, a move that could dramatically shrink the number of those able to do just that is a move that ought to receive some scrutiny.

*

And now,  a more detailed description of the Oscar voting process, both before and after the new rules:

In the Best Picture category until now, as in most other categories, completed nominating ballots are put in stacks, based on the film ranked first on each ballot. A number is generated to determine the minimum number of votes required to assure a nomination, and any film that tops that number immediately becomes a nominee.

Films that get significantly more votes than they need for the nomination trigger the co-called "surplus rule," and the ballots for those films are redistributed to give a portion of the vote to the films listed second on each one of those ballots.

Once the surplus redistribution has taken place, the film with the smallest stack of votes is eliminated, and each of its ballots is redistributed into the pile of the film listed second on that ballot. (If that film has already been either nominated or eliminated, the vote goes to the third-place choice, or the highest-ranked choice still in the running.)

The system proceeds round after round, with the least-popular film or films eliminated in each subsequent round, until it comes up with the desired number of nominees. To arrive at 10 nominees will likely take at least half-a-dozen rounds, and often many more than that.

The new system, though, does away with those rounds of redistribution, and arrives at the slate of nominees through what Davis told TheWrap is a three-step, one-round process:

Best Picture ballot1. As in the old system, all the Best-Picture ballots are put in piles based on each voter's first choice. Based on the number of ballots received, PwC will determine the number required to guarantee a nomination in the initial count by dividing the number of ballots cast by 11 (the number of available nominations plus one), and then adding one.

In assigning this number, PwC will assume that 10 nominations are up for grabs, even though the final number may well be lower. For instance: If 5,000 of the Academy's near-6,000 members cast ballots in the Best Picture category, the magic number will be 455.

In that situation, a film with 455 votes or more is automatically a nominee.

2. Any film with 20 percent more votes than it needs triggers the surplus rule, in which the unneeded portion of each vote will go to the second-place film on that ballot, or the highest-ranked film that's still in the running.

If, for instance, you need 455 votes to be nominated but you get twice that many, 910, each of your votes will count 50 percent for you and 50 percent for the voter's next choice. If you get a third more votes than you need, that third will go to your second choice.

Note: Contrary to a recent explanation in the Hollywood Reporter, this redistribution does not take place with the ballots of all films that receive more than 5 percent of the vote. It only takes place with films getting 20 percent more than they need to guarantee a nomination. (That means you need to get just under 11 percent of the first-place votes, or 546 votes in our example, to trigger the surplus rule.)

3. Once the surplus redistribution has been made, the films that have less than 1 percent of the total — meaning, in our hypothetical case of 5,000 ballots, all of those with fewer than 50 first-place votes — also have their ballots redistributed. On each of those ballots, the first-place film is crossed off and the vote goes to the film listed second, or to the top-ranked film that is still in the running.

And then the vote stops. After this single round of redistribution, the accountants will total up all the votes. Any film that now has at least five percent of the vote — in our example, any film with 250 votes — becomes a Best-Picture nominee.

A PwC study of the last decade of Oscar voting says that the result will be between five and 10 nominees. 

(Ballot and nomination announcement photos by AMPAS)