Oscar Voting: Passion's Got Nothing to Do With It

Contrary to a recent report, to win a Best Picture Oscar you need consensus, not passion

Do we need another quick primer on the Oscar voting process?

I think Variety does. In a piece this week headlined "Passion can propel pics' prospects" (that's some old-school trade-paper alliteration!), the publication advances the notion that the key to winning a Best Picture Oscar is getting a passionate minority to rally behind your film.

That's dead wrong.

It is, perhaps, an easy mistake to make – because in the nominations  round, the preferential system of vote-counting does reward love 'em or hate 'em films with narrow but fervent support.

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But in the final round, paradoxically, that same system of counting – which is used only for final ballots in the Best Picture category – does exactly the opposite: It searches out and rewards the film that has the most broad-based support from the entire body of voters.

Also read: Oscar Nominations Analysis: Contradictory, and Good for 'The Artist'

If you've got a small group of people who love you and put you at the top of their ballots, you're only part of the way to the win. You also need a lot of the other votes to like you enough to put you near the top of their ballots.

Says Variety: "With ballots due to PwC in less than a week, passion can be all that separates the nominees from the winners."

No, passion is what separates the nominees from the non-nominees. Consensus is what separates the nominees from the winners.

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

In the nomination round, when you need five percent of the vote to secure a nomination, passion will get you there. In the final round, when you need more than 50 percent to win, passion will leave you sitting in your seat as your more universally-liked rival picks up the Oscar.

The Best Picture ballot, unlike every other category on the Oscar ballot, asks voters to rank their favorites, one through nine. Unless one film has more than 50 percent of the No. 1 votes – which obviously would be exceedingly rare in a field of nine – the lowest-ranked films are eliminated round by round, with those votes going to whichever film is ranked second on each ballot.

Unlike the Best Picture nomination process, where the bar is lower and the opportunity for ballot redistribution extremely limited, the final count will continue until one film has a majority.

In most cases, that means that a movie will need far more than the No. 1 votes from its biggest supporters. It'll need to be ranked No. 2, 3 or 4 by voters whose own top choices are eliminated.

In the end, the winner will be the film with the broadest support, not the one with the most passionate support.  It might not even have the most No. 1 votes, if it picks up a majority of votes from further down the ballot.

Under this version of the preferential system, love 'em or hate 'em films have virtually no chance. If you're No. 1 on the ballots of a passionate minority but No. 7, 8 or 9 on everybody else's ballot, you're never going to pick up the extra votes you need to win.

That's why successful Oscar campaigns are geared at mobilizing the minority in the first round, and appealing to the majority in the second.

Passion = nomination. Consensus = gold statuette.

That's Oscar's new math.