TheWrap’s annual recount of the Critics’ Choice Awards ballots using the Oscars’ preferential system has produced a real surprise this year: 10 Best Picture nominees.
On the surface that shouldn’t come as a shock, since the Academy’s system is designed to result in anywhere between five and 10 nominees. But in 12 years of use and testing by AMPAS and in four previous years of simulations with Critics’ Choice ballots, it never came up with 10.
Before the system was instituted by the Academy in 2011, the Oscars team at PricewaterhouseCoopers went back and recounted eight previous years of voting to test how it would have worked. According to AMPAS, they found years of five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees, but never a year of 10. And in the four years in which it has been used, it has produced nine nominees three times and eight nominees once.
In fact, some Oscar-watchers were recently tweeting about how it had been mathematically proven that you could never have a year of 10 nominees.
But that’s not true. For the past four years, the Broadcast Film Critics Association has allowed its accountant, Debby Britton of CMM, LLC, to recount the Critics’ Choice Awards best-pic ballots for TheWrap using the Oscar system.
The recount yielded eight nominees every year – until this year, when it suddenly produced a full slate of 10.
That doesn’t mean the Oscars voters will follow suit; the two organizations only matched exactly last year, when the Oscar-style system produced eight Critics’ Choice nominations, and the Academy came up with the same number. The other three years, Critics’ Choice had eight and the Oscars nine.
But the lesson of this year’s Critics’ Choice voting could conceivably apply to the Oscars as well: A larger-than-usual number of films got votes, but a smaller-than-usual number of them had strong support.
That’s the kind of year it would take to generate the maximum number of nominees, though it’s a given that the 6,200 Oscar voters may not see the cinema of 2015 in the same way that the 300-odd Critics’ Choice voters do.
But it’s an intriguing scenario, at any rate, and one that may quicken the pulse of a few studios and consultants anxious to claim that 10th slot.
Here’s how the Critics’ Choice recount broke down. It’ll also serve to illustrate how the Oscar best-pic vote works, which means things are about to get complicated.
The Critics’ Choice voters nominated these 10 films for Best Picture, listed here in order of their total number of nominations:
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Big Short”
“Bridge of Spies”
(“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was later added to the Critics’ Choice Best Picture roster, but it was not part of the vote that was recounted.)
STEP 1: The Initial Count
After determining the total number of ballots cast, you begin by finding the “magic number” required to guarantee a nomination. That is done by dividing the total number of ballots by 11 (the number of available nominations, plus one). Example: If 250 critics voted, the number would be 22.7. If the result is a whole number, you add 1; if it’s a decimal, you go up to the next highest whole number, in this hypothetical case 23.
On the ballot, BFCA voters were asked to rank their top five films in order of preference – but at this stage of the count, we’re only concerned with No. 1 choices. Any film that is not the first choice of at least one voter is eliminated from contention, regardless of how many No. 2 or No. 3 votes it receives.
According to Britton, 38 of this year’s films received first-place votes and remained in the running. That’s 10 more than received first-place votes last year, and the most that have ever done so during the five years we’ve conducted this recount.
Any film with more than the magic number of first-place votes becomes an automatic nominee. Only one film did so this year, whereas three had done so the last two years in a row. (Feel free to guess which one was a first-round nominee: I suspect it’s “Spotlight,” though it could be “The Martian,” “Mad Max” or “Carol.”)
STEP 2: The Surplus Rule
The next step starts by determining whether any films received enough votes to trigger an Academy wrinkle called the surplus rule. Created so voters wouldn’t be wasting their vote if they put a massively popular film at the top of their ballot, the rule takes any film that gets 10 percent more votes than it needs, and reallocates the unneeded portion of each vote to the film ranked second on the ballot.
For instance: If “Spotlight” needed 23 votes to be nominated and got 46, it really only required 50 percent of each of its votes to secure a slot. So on every ballot that included that film in the top spot, 50 percent of the vote would be shifted to the film ranked second on that ballot. If it got, say, 20 percent more votes than it needed, then that 20 percent would be shifted to the No. 2 choice on each “Spotlight” ballot.
If the No. 2 choice was no longer in the running because the film didn’t get any No. 1 votes and was already eliminated, or conversely because it had already secured a nomination, the accountants would go to the ballot’s highest-ranked film still in play.
This year, Britton said, the one film that clinched a first-round nomination also went into surplus. And once the surplus votes were reallocated, three more films passed the magic number to bring the total number of nominees to four. That means either the top film had a huge number of extra votes that were reallocated, or those other three films were so close to the magic number that they didn’t need a lot of extra help.
STEP 3: Redistribution
At this point, any film picked No. 1 on fewer than one percent of the ballots is eliminated. (That means any movie with one, two or maybe three first-place votes, depending on how many BFCA members cast ballots.)
Of the 34 films still in play after the first five films secured nominations, Britton said that 21 fell below this 1 percent line. That’s an extremely large number of films to be eliminated at this stage. In the Critics’ Choice recount, about half of the remaining films are typically knocked out of contention at this stage, but this year almost two-thirds were.
It indicates that while a large number of movies got votes, their support was thin.
Ballots for those 21 films were then reallocated, with their full votes going to each critic’s No. 2 choice. Again, if that second choice had already been eliminated or had already secured a nomination, the vote would have gone to the highest-ranked film still in the running. If none of the 13 films remaining in contention were listed on the voter’s ballot, that ballot was discarded.
STEP 4: The 5 Percent Rule
Once the less-than-1-percent ballots were reallocated, every film that had more than 5 percent of the vote became a best-picture nominee. Every film with less than that did not. (In our hypothetical example with 250 voters, 13 first-place votes would be enough to secure a nomination.)
When CMM ran those numbers, six of the 13 remaining films crossed the 5 percent threshold to raise the number of nominees to 10. The remaining seven films fell between 1 percent and 5 percent, and were not nominated.
Of the 38 films that received first-place votes, here’s the breakdown:
First-round nomination, redistributed under surplus rule: 1 film
Second-round nomination: 3 films
Third-round nomination: 6 films
Not nominated, not redistributed: 7 films
Fell below one percent, redistributed: 21 films
We won’t know if Oscar voters will go a similar route to give us a full slate of 10 nominees until nominations are announced on Jan. 14. (History suggests they won’t.) The Critics’ Choice Awards will take place three days later, on Jan. 17.