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Hey, Oscars Voters: Your Third, Fourth and Fifth Choices for Best Picture Probably Won’t Matter

We recounted Critics’ Choice ballots using the Academy’s best-pic process — and found the last couple of choices on each ballot seldom come into play


As the 7,902 Oscars voters fill out their ballots this week, they will have five slots in which to rank their choices for Best Picture. But as we’ve discussed many times before, their votes don’t count toward all five of their picks — instead, the preferential system of vote-counting used for Oscar nominations directs a single vote on each ballot to the highest-ranked film that needs the vote.

Academy members, many of whom understandably don’t understand the intricacies of the balloting, have often wondered how useful their second, third, fourth and fifth choices really are. If the ballots are counted starting with each voter’s No. 1 choice, and each voter only gets to cast a single vote, how often does that vote really slide to a lower choice?

We don’t know, and the AMPAS accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers won’t say. So we did the next best thing: We went to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which will be handing out the 24th Critics’ Choice Awards on Sunday evening, and asked if we could supervise a recount of their ballots using the Oscars system.

The Critics’ Choice accountant, Debby Britton from CMM, LLP, has done this with TheWrap almost every year since 2011 to see how many Best Picture nominees the Oscar process would create if it were used with Critics’ Choice ballots. (The CCA nominates a flat 10 films in its top category.)

But this year we used the count to figure out which spots on the ballots would come into play. And here’s the bottom line: On 65 percent of the ballots, either a full or partial vote would have gone to the film ranked first on that ballot.

And those fourth and fifth choices virtually never came into play. Only 2 percent of the ballots produced a vote (or even a partial vote) for a film ranked fourth on the ballot, and not a single one produced a vote for the film ranked fifth.

Obviously, the 300-plus members of the BFCA are a far different group than the nearly 8,000 voting members of the Academy. But Britton recounted the Critics’ Choice ballots using the same system that determines Oscar nominations in the Best Picture category, so the ballots should behave similarly.

And if that’s the case, it means that the last two spots on an Oscar voter’s Best Picture ballot will rarely if ever have any impact on what gets nominated.

Before we go further, a quick primer on the voting:

In the Oscars Best Picture category, voters are asked to rank their five top choices in order of preference. Then those votes are separated into stacks based on each member’s first choice. (By the way, 43 different films received first-place votes from BFCA members, the largest number ever in the time we’ve been doing this recount.)

Any film with more than 10 percent of the vote (in our test case, 31 votes if 300 BFCA members cast a ballot) becomes an automatic nominee. Any film with 10 percent more votes than it needs to be nominated (i.e., 35 votes) triggers something called the “surplus rule,” where a portion of the vote is redirected to the highest-ranked film on that ballot that is still in the running.

(Note: A full 47 percent of this year’s Critics’ Choice ballots would have triggered the surplus rule, meaning that a large percentage of ballots had the same handful of films at the top.)

After the surplus rule is invoked, all the ballots whose first choice is a movie that has received less than 1 percent of the vote (1 or 2 votes in this example) are redistributed to that voter’s No. 2 choice, or the highest-ranked film on the ballot still in play.

And after that round of redistribution, any film with more than 5 percent of the vote (16 votes) is a nominee; any film with less is not.

This year, only seven films would have become BFCA nominees under that method of counting; that ties with last year for the fewest nominees in the years we’ve been doing this recount.

But the main thing we wanted to learn about this year’s ballots was which choices would count — and overwhelmingly, the No. 1 choice was the one that mattered.

Britton told TheWrap that on 65 percent of the ballots, either a full vote or a partial vote (after surplus-rule redistribution) went to the film ranked first.

Going down the ballot, the percentages fell precipitously: BFCA members’ second choice helped produce a nomination 17 percent of the time. The film ranked third mattered just 9 percent of the time, while only 2 percent of No. 4 choices factored into the count. And of all the Critics’ Choice ballots cast this year, no film ranked fifth would have helped secure a nomination.

(The numbers don’t add up to a neat 100 percent because some ballots cast partial votes for two different films in different spots on the ballot, and because other ballots were discarded when none of the films listed were still in the running.)

While we can’t infer too much, given the difference between Critics’ Choice voters and Oscar voters, the result does strongly suggest that the Oscars’ Best Picture system, with only a single round of redistribution rather than the multiple rounds that are used to produce a flat number of five or 10 nominees, severely restricts the opportunities for a voter’s third, fourth or fifth choices to come into play.

So pay close attention to your No. 1 and No. 2 picks, Oscar voters. (However, multiple rounds of distribution are used in non-Best Picture categories, so those lower choices have a better chance of counting.)

The Critics’ Choice Awards will take place on Jan. 13. Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 22.