How Is the Oscar Best Picture Winner Chosen Exactly? A Short Explainer

The fate of “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” is in the hands of a complicated vote-counting system

Last Updated: February 28, 2016 @ 10:31 AM


Oscar ballots were due at PricewaterhouseCoopers by 5 p.m. on Tuesday night.

By Wednesday morning, the accountants had collected the paper ballots that were mailed in, printed out paper copies of the votes that were cast online, and started to count.

In 23 of the categories, it’s easy: Voters are asked to pick one of the nominees, and the nominee with the most votes wins.

But the Best Picture category is different, as readers of TheWrap know well.

What system does the Academy use to count the Best Picture ballots?
It’s called the preferential system, or instant runoff voting.

Why preferential?
Because it keeps asking the voters to express a preference: Which of these films do you prefer?

How do voters answer that question?
By ranking all the best picture nominees. This year, that means putting the numbers 1 through 8 next to the names of the eight nominees.

So it must be eight points for your first choice, seven for your second, etc. Right?
Wrong. Your first choice gets one vote. At first, no other movie on your ballot matters.

“At first?” So how does the count begin?
PwC makes eight stacks of ballots, based on the film ranked first on each ballot. If one film is ranked first on more than half the ballots, it’s the winner.

How many votes would that take?
There are 6,261 eligible voters in the Academy. If they all vote, the magic number will be 3,131. If 90 percent of them vote, it’d be 2,818.

How often does one nominee get more than 50 percent of the first-place votes?
I don’t know, because they never tell. My guess would be almost never. And in a tightly competitive year like this one, with three strong frontrunners in “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight,” there’s really no way it will happen.

If you don’t have a winner after the initial count, what happens?
The accountants look at the eight nominees, and see which pile is the smallest. That film is then eliminated from contention.

What happens to the ballots of the people who voted for it?
The preferential system basically says to those voters, Your first choice was eliminated. Out of the seven movies that are still in the running, which do you prefer?

That question can be answered by seeing which film is ranked second on each of those ballots. If, for instance, “Bridge of Spies” is the first film to be eliminated, and a “Bridge of Spies” voter has “Brooklyn” ranked second, that ballot goes into the pile for “Brooklyn.” If “The Revenant” is ranked second, the ballot goes into that pile.

All of the “Bridge of Spies” voters are still casting a vote — but now they’re casting it for the film in second place on their ballot, not the film in first.

(Attention, “Bridge of Spies” fans: The order of elimination in this story is entirely hypothetical. I’m not trying to pick on your movie.)

But what if a voter just checked the box next to “Bridge of Spies,” and didn’t rank any of the other nominees?
Then they’ve wasted their vote. That ballot can’t answer the question, Which of these seven movies do you prefer?, so it’s thrown out.

So once all those “Bridge of Spies” ballots are redistributed, what happens?
PwC recounts the votes, to see if any movie has now crossed the 50 percent threshold with the new votes it picked up. If anything did, the count is over and we have a winner.

And if not?
Then they do it again. The film with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the question becomes, Which of these six movies do you prefer?

Let’s say “Brooklyn” is the next movie to be eliminated. PwC will pick up every ballot with “Brooklyn” ranked first, and put it into the pile of whatever movie is ranked second on that ballot.

What about that hypothetical ballot that had “Bridge of Spies” ranked first and “Brooklyn” ranked second? That ballot has already been redistributed.
Yes, it has. And now it’ll be redistributed again, with the vote going to whichever movie is ranked next-highest on the ballot.

And what if a “Brooklyn” ballot has “Bridge of Spies,” which has already been eliminated, ranked second?
Then that vote will also go to the movie ranked third on the ballot. As long as a voter has indicated his or her preference among the movies that are still in the running, the vote will count.

How long can the count go on?
With eight nominees, you can conceivably eliminate six of them before revealing a winner. In every new round, the film with the fewest votes will be eliminated, and its votes will go to the highest-ranked film still in the running on each of its ballots.

Essentially, the system will continue to ask the question: Which of these five movies do you prefer? Which of these four movies do you prefer? Which of these three movies do you prefer? You might get a winner at any stage, or you might have to go all the way down to two movies.

If it gets down to two movies, isn’t it possible that a voter could have those two movies ranked seventh and eighth on his or her ballot?
Yes, it is. And the vote will go to whichever one is ranked seventh.

But is it fair that a vote that ranks a film seventh would count just as much as a vote that ranks the film first?
Under a preferential system, it’s absolutely fair. All it wants to know is which of the movies a voter prefers. If the final two movies are “The Revenant” and “The Big Short,” for example, and the count goes all six rounds, it’s no longer relevant what a voter thinks of “The Revenant” as compared to “Room,” or whether they like “The Big Short” better than “The Martian.”

All that matters is the answer to this question: Which of these two movies do you prefer?

Will the winner always be the movie that had the most No. 1 votes at the beginning of the process?
Sometimes it will. In fact, most of the time it probably will. But the winner could also be a movie that has fewer No. 1 votes, but picked up more No. 2 or No. 3 votes as other films were eliminated.

This year, conventional wisdom says that “The Revenant” will have the most No. 1 votes and will start out in the lead, but that “The Big Short” might catch up by being ranked higher on more of the redistributed ballots.

Why go to all this fuss? Why not just vote for your favorite and count up the votes, like every other category?
Because with eight Best Picture nominees, a movie could theoretically win with only about 15 percent of the vote. The Academy and PwC wanted a system that would show a true consensus favorite, which preferential counting does.

The Producers Guild uses preferential, and they had a tie between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” How could that happen?
If, say, 6,000 people voted in that election, it could only happen if exactly 3,000 of those ballots ranked “12 Years a Slave” higher than “Gravity,” and the other 3,000 ranked “Gravity” higher than “12 Years a Slave.” And it could only happen, obviously, if an even number of people voted.

So could the Oscars have a Best Picture tie, too?
No. The preferential system has built-in tiebreakers that make it easy to break a deadlock. The PGA opted not to use them, but PwC told TheWrap that they would use the tiebreakers to prevent a Best Picture tie.

Why is this all so complicated?
To give me something to write about every year.

Academy Award Best Picture: A Short ExplainerEver wonder how The Academy decides who wins Best Picture? Well we’ve got you covered.

Posted by The Wrap on Friday, February 26, 2016