Which Oscar Nomination Will 19 Votes Get You?

And other quirks of the system for picking Academy Awards hopefuls

If you’re a costume designer looking for an Oscar nomination, you’ll only need to get 19 of your colleagues to vote for you.

A director? You need 62. A cinematographer? A mere 34 votes will do it.

The numbers may seem paltry for such an accolade – but in an Academy of almost 6,000 voting members, it takes fewer than 100 votes to secure a nomination in every category except best picture and the four acting categories.

That’s because the nominations are determined not by the entire Academy, but by each specific branch – and with Academy membership being an honor extended only to those with extensive and impressive resumes in their fields, most of the branches consist of between 200 and 500 voting members. So it doesn’t take many votes to reach the mathematical threshold (the basic equation is one-sixth, plus one) that will guarantee you’re one of the top five vote-getters.

And they don’t have to all be number-one votes. Each voter lists his five favorite accomplishments, in order; PricewaterhouseCoopers begins counting with the film in the top spot on each ballot, but the preferential process usually takes several rounds and results in second- and third-place votes coming into play.

(Right, PwC partners Rick Rosas and Brad Oltmanns with the nomination ballots. Photo: AMPAS)

The acting branch, by far the largest at 1,205 voting members, requires 201 votes to secure a nomination. And best picture, the category where every member is eligible to vote (including members in the executives, producers and public relations branches and members-at-large, none of whom can nominate in other categories), requires the most votes – but with the growth of that category to 10 nominations, it’ll only take 526 voters to put a film over the top. (Last year, it would have taken close to 1,000.)

Before we get into a breakdown of the number required to win a nomination in each category, a couple of caveats: First, these figures assume that every eligible member will vote, which is no doubt unlikely (though Rosas says participation is extremely high).

Also, they don’t take into account a new Academy rule which allows members of a branch to also nominate outside their branch if they’ve been nominated in the past for that branch’s award: for example, Cameron Crowe is a member of the directors branch, but he won an original-screenplay Oscar for “Almost Famous." This rule will likely swell the voting populace the most significantly in the writing categories, where actors and directors often pop up.

But for the sake of argument, we’ll assume that the outside-the-branch voters will be counterbalanced by the branch members who don’t vote. So here’s the breakdown, using the Academy’s final figures for the 2009 awards season:

Acting awards:
Members: 1,205 active
Votes required for nomination: 201

Art direction:
Members: 374 members (but 109 are costume designers, who vote in a separate category; that means that 265 members are eligible to vote for the art direction Oscar)
Votes required for nomination: 45

Cinematography:
Members: 201
Votes required for nomination: 34

Costume design:
Members: 109 (from the art directors branch)
Votes required for nomination: 19

Directing:
Members: 366
Votes required for nomination: 62

Film editing: 
Members: 221
Votes required for nomination: 37

Original score:
Members: 234
Votes required for nomination: 40

Sound editing, sound mixing:
Members: 405
Votes required for nomination: 68

Original screenplay, adapted screenplay:
Members: 382
Votes required for nomination: 64

Best picture:
Members: 5,777
Votes required for nomination: 526

In nine of the categories, more complicated processes are used:

Animated feature: Nominated by volunteer committees open to all members, not just those in the 340-member short films and feature animation branch. Volunteers must see 80% of the eligible films (this year, 16 of the 20 films), and nominations are made by a scoring system, not by direct ballots.

Documentary feature and documentary short: 151 members in the documentary branch, but both categories use a multi-level screening process in which committees view and score each eligible nominee. To produce the shortlist, each film might be viewed by as few as 25 members; to come up with the final nominations, the shortlisted films are viewed by all members who wish to attend special screenings.

Foreign-language film: There is no foreign-language branch. The Academy uses a variety of committees, first to come up with a nine-film shortlist (six of the nine selected by volunteers from all branches, the remaining three by a select committee), then to narrow it down to the five nominees.

Makeup: The branch has 118 members, which would translate to 30 votes (to determine three nominees rather than five) if the branch nominated in the usual way. Instead, though, the process starts with a meeting to vote for a shortlist of seven films; the rules specify that at least 15 members must attend this meeting. Once the field is narrowed to seven, the branch holds a “bakeoff” in which the shortlisted makeup artists show clips and talk about their work, and the members in attendance then vote. Members who can’t attend the bakeoff but have seen all the contenders may also vote.

Original song: Voting is restricted to those from the 234-member music branch who view a reel of all the nominated songs, and then score each one on a scale of six-to-10. Nominations are determined by those scores.

Live-action short, animated short: The short films and feature animation branch contains 340 members, but nominations are determined by committee in a two-round process in which the films are scored on the six-to-10 scale.

Visual effects: 279 members. A branch executive committee narrows the field to seven, and members present at a bakeoff narrow the seven to three nominees.

In the final voting, things get a lot less complicated, and everybody is eligible to vote for everything … except in the categories of foreign-language film, documentaries and shorts, where only those who’ve seen all the nominees may vote.

And here’s the 2009 Academy season’s official branch count:

Actors: 1,205
Art directors: 374
Cinematographers: 200
Directors: 366
Documentary: 151
Executives: 437
Film Editors: 221
Makeup Artists and Hairstylists: 118
Music: 234
Producers: 452
Public Relations: 368
Short Films and Feature Animation: 340
Sound: 405
Visual Effects: 279
Writers: 382
Members-at-large: 245

Total voting members: 5,777

Associate (non-voting) members: 157
Total active members: 5,934

An additional 606 members, spread out across all branches, are retired and do not vote, making a total Academy membership of 6,540.