How Oscar Comes Up With Its Nominees: a Demonstration

With nominations about to be revealed Tuesday morning, here’s how the accountants deal with all that paper

For the past two weeks, a team from PricewaterhouseCoopers has been locked in an undisclosed location doing a confusing thing: counting Oscar nomination ballots.

I’ve tried to describe exactly how it works in the past – but with the results in and ready to be unveiled on Tuesday morning, I figured it might be time to take one more stab at it. This time, though, I’ll go through the process not by explaining it, but by demonstrating it.

(It'd be a lot easier to follow if you could come to my house and watch me stack papers on my dining room table, but I guess that's impractical.)

Oscar ballotI’ve started by taking the top 10 lists compiled on the Movie City News site, which has gathered 169 lists from critics around the country. I’ve treated those lists as if they are Oscar Best Picture nominating ballots, tallying them using the preferential system that has been used for Oscar voting since the 1930s.

MCN has tallied the lists themselves using the more common weighted system, giving 10 points for a Number One choice, nine for a Number Two, etc. The differences between the two tallies are not major, but they do matter. Two films in MCN’s top 10 didn’t make the preferential list, while a controversial film ranked 17th by MCN ended up scoring a nomination when I tallied the votes.

To start with, I had to throw out 13 of the 169 lists, because the critics listed their favorites but didn’t rank them.  Without rankings, preferential doesn’t work. (Sorry, Pete Hammond and Shawn Levy and Claudia Puig and others.)

That leaves 156 ballots. We’re using those ballots to find 10 Best Picture nominees, so we need to find the number of votes that will guarantee a spot in the top 10. You get that number by dividing 156 by 11 (the number of nominations up for grabs, plus one), which gives you 14.18. Add one (or any fraction of one), and you’ve got the number that will guarantee that 10 other movies can’t have more votes.

In this case, the magic number is 15.

Keep in mind that voters list 10 films – but unlike the weighted system, they only end up casting one vote, for one film.

To begin the count, you stack the ballots in piles depending on what film is listed first on each ballot. In this case, we have 50 different piles – because while almost 250 films are mentioned on the various lists, only 50 of them land in the Number One spot. Under Academy rules, a film that isn’t listed first on somebody’s ballot is out of the running.

Surprisingly, this turns out to immediately disqualify two potential Best Picture nominees, “The Fighter” and “The Town,” neither of which drew a single Number One vote from a critic.

Of the remaining films, here’s the voting breakdown:

“The Social Network” – 43
“Winter’s Bone” – 15
“Inception” – 14
“Carlos” – 10
“127 Hours” – 9
“The King’s Speech” – 8
“Black Swan” – 7
“Toy Story 3” – 6
“True Grit” – 6
“Blue Valentine” – 5
“The Ghost Writer” – 5
“Another Year” – 4
“Dogtooth” – 4
“Four Lions” – 3
“I Am Love” – 3
“The Kids Are All Right” – 3
“Everyone Else” – 2
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” – 2
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – 2
“Greenberg” – 2
“Lourdes” – 2
“Never Let Me Go” – 2
“Our Beloved Month of August” – 2
“A Prophet” – 2
“Red Riding Trilogy” – 2
“Secret Sunshine” – 2
“The Strange Case of Angelica” – 2
“Wild Grass” – 2

Plus single votes for “About Elly,” “Alamar,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Biutiful,” “The Company Men,” “Domain,” “The Eclipse,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Incendies,” “Inside Job,” “Last Train Home,” “Let Me In,” “Night Catches Us,” “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” “The Oath,” “Please Give,” “The Secret in Their Eyes,” “Shutter Island,” “Somewhere,” “Tiny Furniture,” “Trash Humpers” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”

On the first ballot, then, two films secure nominations. “The Social Network” is first on a remarkable 43 lists, 28 more than necessary to land a nomination, while “Winter’s Bone” gets exactly the 15 it needs.

Jesse EisenbergThe “Social Network” situation triggers a preferential wrinkle called the surplus rule, which kicks in if a film gets 20 percent more votes than it needs to secure a nomination. Under surplus, which is designed so that voters aren’t wasting votes, only the percentage of the vote needed for a nomination is applied to that film. The rest of the vote goes to the next film on the voter’s ballot.

In this case, “The Social Network” only needs 15 votes, not 43 – so (to round up to the nearest whole number) it only requires 35 percent of each of those 43 votes. So all its votes are redistributed into the piles of the films ranked second on each ballot – but they only count as .65 of a vote, because that’s the portion that “The Social Network” doesn’t need.

For example: Roger Ebert put “The Social Network” first on his list, and “The King’s Speech” second.   So .35 of his vote is used to help “Social Network” get a nomination, and then the other .65 goes into the “King’s Speech” pile.

In the redistribution of “Social Network” votes, “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” each receive eight partial votes; “Carlos” gets seven, “Inception” six, and the rest are spread out among 11 other films.

The immediate result: with those six partial votes totaling 3.9, “Inception” now has 17.9 votes, putting it over the magic number and making it the third nominee. (One-tenth of a vote more and it would have triggered a second-level surplus rule, which might be appropriate for the dizzying, multi-layered plot of “Inception,” but would get into levels of math I don’t want to think about.)

So at the end of the first round, we have three nominees. The votes for those three films come off the table, because those voters have done their job. Now we’ve got seven nominations up for grabs, and a fraction (thanks to surplus) more than 108 votes remaining on the table. Recalculation means the new magic number [108 / (7+1) + 1] is now 14.

CarlosBut with its 10 first-place votes and its seven partial votes courtesy of “Social Network,” “Carlos” (right) has 14.55; that’s now above the magic number, making it nominee number four.

After a quick check to make sure that we don’t need to readjust the magic number, round two begins with the elimination of the 21 movies that only have a single vote. On each of those ballots, the film ranked first is crossed off, and the ballot is put into the pile of the film ranked second, if that film is still in the running.

If not, you keep going down the ballot until you find a film still in contention. For example: Richard Brody of the New Yorker ranked “Shutter Island” first on his list. But he was the only person to do so, which means that his favorite was eliminated after round one. Brody has “The Social Network” listed second, but that film already has a nomination so it doesn’t need his vote. “Somewhere,” ranked third, was also eliminated after the first round. But “Greenberg,” his fourth choice, is still in the running, so his ballot goes into that pile.

When all the ballots have been redistributed, the top of the count looks like this:

“The Social Network” – NOMINATED
“Winter’s Bone” – NOMINATED
“Inception” – NOMINATED
“Carlos” – NOMINATED

“Black Swan” – 14.2
“The King’s Speech” – 14.2
“127 Hours” – 11.65
“Toy Story 3” – 10.3
“Blue Valentine” – 6.65
“True Grit” – 6.65
“The Kids Are All Right” – 6.3
“Another Year” – 6
“Dogtooth” – 6
“The Ghost Writer” – 5.65
[Plus 16 more films with fewer than five points]

With that, two more films – “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech” – pass the magic number and become nominees.

A breakdown of where the “Black Swan” votes came from illustrate what you need to do to cobble together a winning hand under the preferential system. Seven of its votes were first-place votes; two were third and fourth-place votes on ballots whose first choices (“Incendies” and “Alamar”) had been eliminated; and eight partial votes came from “Social Network” ballots because of the surplus rule.

So after two rounds, we have six of the 10 nominees. We also have two voters whose ballots are taken off the table, because there’s nothing left on either that needs or could use a vote: novelist Stephen King’s list, for instance, contains two films that have already been nominated (“The Social Network” and “Inception”) and eight that are out of the running (“Let Me In,” “The Town,” “Kick-Ass,” “Jackass 3D” … ).

Round three eliminates a single film, “The Secret in Their Eyes,” and redistributes its full vote to “Toy Story” and its partial to “I Am Love.”

127 HoursRound four eliminates nine more movies, most of them arty indies: “Everyone Else,” “Our Beloved Month of August,” “The Strange Case of Angelica,” “Wild Grass.” The big beneficiaries are “The Ghost Writer” (right), which picks up five new votes, and “Dogtooth,” which picks up three.

Round five, still looking for the final four nominees with a magic number of 14, ends like this:

“127 Hours” – 11.65
“Toy Story 3” – 11.3
“The Ghost Writer” – 10.65
“Dogtooth” – 9
“True Grit” – 7.75
“The Kids Are All Right” – 7.3
“Another Year” – 7
“Blue Valentine” – 6.65
“Greenberg” – 6.65
“I Am Love” – 4.65
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” – 4.3
“Four Lions” – 4
“A Prophet” – 3.65

 By round six, a couple more voters have fallen out, with ballots that can no longer be used. The magic number falls to 13.

In round eight, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is eliminated; in round nine, “I Am Love” bites the dust.  Nine contenders are left, and the final three spots remain unfilled.

In round 10, votes from “I Am Love” push “127 Hours” over the threshold, making it the seventh nominee and leaving this lineup:

“The Ghost Writer” – 12.3
“Toy Story 3” – 12.3
“The Kids Are All Right” – 11.95
“Dogtooth” – 11
“Another Year” – 10.3
“True Grit” – 9.75
“Blue Valentine” – 6.65
“Greenberg” – 6.65

And in round 11, redistributed votes from “Blue Valentine” and “Greenberg” finally do the trick and bring us our final three nominees. “Ghost Writer” gets two more votes, “Toy Story” gets one more, and “Dogtooth” makes a final round surge of three votes to jump past “The Kids Are All Right.”

The final nominees, in the order of finish:

"The Social Network"
"Winter's Bone"
"Inception"
"Carlos"
(tie) "Black Swan"
(tie) "The King's Speech"
"127 Hours"
"The Ghost Writer"
"Dogtooth"
"Toy Story 3"

Of interest is how this differs from the order of finish from the MCN chart, which tallies the lists using a weighted system. The top three films are the same – but the fourth-place finisher on the preferential list, “Carlos,” sits all the way down in 10th place on the weighted list. (The critics who put it on their lists tended to rank it near the top – and at this stage of the voting, a small but passionate following is often better than a larger but less enthusiastic one.)

Dogtooth“The Kids Are All Right” and “True Grit,” which got solid middle-of-the-ballot support and finished in eighth and ninth place on the weighted list, didn’t make the preferential list at all; instead, “The Ghost Writer” (number 11 on the weighted list) jumped up to eighth place, and the divisive “Dogtooth” (left) leapt from 17th place on the weighted list to secure the ninth nomination.

In the end, only about 10 critics filled out ballots that had to be discarded, while the films that secured "nominations" did so with mentions ranging across the entire ballot. Six of the votes for "Toy Story 3," for instance, came from the top spot on lists, three from second place, two from third, one from fourth, one from sixth and one from seventh.

Interestingly enough, the divisiveness that helps a film in the preferential count in the nominating process hurts it when the same system is used to find a single winner, as it is in the final Best Picture balloting.

But I won’t wade into those waters until later.