Is #OscarsSoWhite a Math Problem?

The Academy’s preferential system of counting votes could be working against the members’ more adventurous (and perhaps diverse) choices

The Academy’s complicated system of counting ballots could conceivably be making Oscar voters seem less open to diversity than they really are. And as the AMPAS Board of Governors prepares to discuss steps to fix the #OscarsSoWhite problem at a previously scheduled meeting this Tuesday, the preferential system could well come under scrutiny.

The crux of the problem is that while the Best Picture ballot asks members to list five films in order of preference, their fourth and fifth picks — which is where some of the more adventurous choices might well come in, and where several members speculated that “Straight Outta Compton” landed on many ballots — are seldom tallied under the preferential system.

“The preferential system is very difficult to understand, and I’m very comfortable saying that the vast majority of members do not have the faintest understanding of how it works,” Bruce Feldman, an Academy member from the Public Relations Branch, told TheWrap.

“When members are asked to vote for five films, we expect that our five choices will be tabulated in a fashion true to what we put down on the ballot. If the preferential system doesn’t reflect that, it’s a serious problem.”

Unlike the weighted system, which would give a different number of points to each film listed on a member’s ballot, depending on where that film was ranked, the preferential system gives each member five choices but only a single vote, which in most cases goes to the film ranked first on the member’s ballot.

That vote slides to a lower-ranked film if the voter’s first choice is a movie with very little support — and, conversely, a portion of the vote can also go to another movie on the ballot if the first choice has significantly more support than it needs to secure a nomination.

The system rewards movies with a small but passionate following over movies with broader but less fervent support, but it also ensures that a voter’s lower choices rarely if ever come into play.

And since 2011, when the Academy switched from a system that guaranteed 10 Best Picture nominees to one that produces a variable number of nominees between five and 10, the opportunities to redistribute votes — and thus, the chance for a lower-ranked film on a ballot to actually count — have been sharply restricted.

The old system kept redistributing the ballots of the least-popular films until only 10 movies remained. It could easily go for six, eight or 10 rounds of redistribution or more, with each new round offering new chances for a voter’s fourth or fifth choice to actually count.

The current system, though, stops after a single round of partial redistribution (the “surplus rule,” for films that get more votes than they need), and a single round of full redistribution of films that received less than 1 percent of the total vote.

To test the theory that the voters’ fourth or fifth choices rarely come into play, I took 241 critics’ Top 10 lists that had been compiled on the Metacritic website and tallied them as if they were Oscar ballots.

On the 241 ballots counted, a vote (or a portion of a vote) went to the film ranked first almost 88 percent of the time. On ballots that were redistributed, the vote (or, again, a portion) went to the film ranked second a full 65 percent of the time, to the film ranked third 20 percent of the time, to the voter’s fourth choice 10 percent of the time and to the film ranked fifth only 5 percent of the time.

Told of those figures, one Academy member who did not wish to be identified laughed. “So why am I spending so much time agonizing over that last slot on my Best Picture ballot,” the member said, “if there’s no chance it will ever count?”

By the way, the critics’ ballots would only have produced seven Best Picture nominees: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Spotlight,” “Carol,” “Inside Out,” “The Assassin,” “Brooklyn” and “Son of Saul,” in that order. The system worked against “Ex Machina,” “Anomalisa,” “45 Years” and “Room,” which got a lot of support but not enough No. 1 votes.

And of the movies featuring African-Americans that the Academy is accused of snubbing, “Straight Outta Compton” and “Beasts of No Nation” didn’t get a single first-place vote, while “Creed” got one and “Chi-Raq” got four.

There’s no way to tell whether “Straight Outta Compton” would have been nominated under a different system — though the accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers could certainly figure it out, and the Academy has the ability and the inclination to ask PwC to do the math and privately share its findings.

“The way to find out is to re-tabulate all the ballots and present that information to members, and then to ask the members how they would like to proceed going forward,” Feldman said. “And I would encourage the Board of Governors to do that.”

If lots of Academy voters really did rank “Straight Outta Compton” fourth or fifth, it could very well have not gotten enough support to land a nomination. And that also means that for the Academy’s push for diversity to be reflected in its nominations under the current system, it’ll need to attract not just voters who’ll put the likes of “Compton” on their ballots, but put to them at or near the top of those ballots.

Going to a weighted system that allocates points to each choice would make sure every film on the ballot counts, but it’d also be a dramatic change that would junk the system used to nominate in almost every category for decades.

But going back to a guaranteed 10 nominees would be a relatively simple change, and one that would allow those lower choices to count significantly more often than they do now.

It won’t bring immediate diversity, and it could lead to a few more cases of Best Picture nominees that aren’t exactly deserving, but it’s a step worthy of the consideration the board will likely give it on Tuesday night.

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