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What Does an Oscar Ballot Look Like?

After seeing a scan of the Best Picture section, a reader wonders about the rest of the ballot

(Have an Oscars question for Steve Pond? Submit it here.)


John asks a question:

You’ve posted scans of the Best Picture nomination ballot and the Best Picture ballot where the ten nominees are to be ranked 1-10. But do you have an example of what the rest of the ballot looks like?

Does it look like a scantron? Do voters fill in bubble or write in names?

In my Tuesday piece about what happens to the ballots after they’re returned to PricewaterhouseCoopers, I showed a photo of an entire Oscar ballot, and a scan of one of the panels from that ballot. You can find a more detailed discussion of the ballot in that story, but here’s the scan of one panel.

It’s very low-tech – just a list of the nominees, with boxes to check next to each name. Unlike a couple of years in the 1930s, no write-in candidates allowed.

In the non-acting categories, the names of the movies are listed, but not the names of the nominees. In Best Director, for instance, voters are asked to choose between “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Precious” and “Up in the Air,” rather than between James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Lee Daniels and Jason Reitman.

A question from Nadia:

I just wanted to ask about how much the preferential system should be taken into account by pundits, because it seems like a lot of voters aren’t using it from anecdotes.

If every voter just picks a single favorite and doesn’t vote for anything else, then the system won’t come into play. But if most voters at least rank a few films, which I believe they will, then it could have an effect on the count.

It’s not necessary to rank all 10 films for the system to be used, since most of the votes will probably go to films ranked in the first few positions. And despite what some voters would have you believe, the ballot instructions are pretty easy to understand.

Of course, we’ll never really know how much weight we should give the system, since PricewaterhouseCoopers will never tell us how many voters didn’t rank films, or whether preferential had any effect on the final results. To me, the fact that “The Hurt Locker” beat the favored “Avatar” at the Producers Guild, which also uses the preferential system, is a sign that the system can indeed affect the result. But that’s just a guess

Diane asks:

I thought I read that Ernest Borgnine et al refused to see OR vote for “Brokeback Mountain.” I’m assuming he’s a member of the Academy? CAN you refuse to see a movie up for an Oscar if you’re a voting member of the Academy??

Except in five categories, the Academy uses the honor system. The official position is that members should see all the nominees before voting in any category, but there is no enforcement: it’s up to members to see the movies, either in theaters, at official Academy screenings or at home on screener DVDs. If a member opts not to see something, the Academy doesn’t know and can’t really do anything about it.

Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis, both of whom are Academy members, did indeed say that they had no intention of seeing “Brokeback” when it was nominated for Best Picture in 2006. More recently, at a party for “Inglourious Basterds,” longtime member Mickey Rooney said that he no longer watches any new movies, but his wife said he would nonetheless cast a ballot.

The only exceptions are in the Documentary Feature, Foreign-Language Film and three shorts categories, where voters obtain a ballot only after seeing all the nominees, usually at special Academy screenings.

The Academy has often claimed that members who can’t see all the nominees in a category will abstain from voting in that category. But I asked PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Rick Rosas about this once, and he said that almost all the members vote in every category.

I have seen every nominee in every category for the past several years, and I can testify that it’s not an easy thing to do. But for a member to refuse to see a Best Picture nominee strikes me as an irresponsible dereliction of duty.

A question from Mark Porter:

Who takes home the actual statuette for best foreign film? Is it the director? Is it proper to say Ang Lee has won two Academy Awards, for “Crouching Tiger” and “Brokeback Mountain?” Or does the Oscar go to the producer? Usually a name is not listed next to the winning title after the show.

Officially, the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film is won by the country that submitted the film. Academy rules specify that the winning film’s director accepts on behalf of the country, and takes legal possession of the statuette. However, the Oscar that Ang Lee received for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was officially awarded to Taiwan, not to Lee, and his name is not engraved on the nameplate.

So Lee owns two Oscars – but if you want to be technical, he only won one.


Patsy Longoria asks:

What musical artists will be playing at the Oscars?

Short answer: I don’t know.

The nominated songs will not be performed on the Oscar show. From what I hear there will be two musical numbers involving dancers, and those will likely be accompanied by an orchestra led by the show’s musical director, Marc Shaiman. The producers are keeping those numbers under wraps, and haven’t announced the participation of any additional artists.


A question from Steven:

How do the various branches vote on the nominees? For the acting branch, is there an alphabetical listing of all films and their actors or are actors listed in a certain way? Very strange that Penelope [Cruz] and not Marion [Cotillard] would be nominated for “Nine.” Or are people still very influenced by those for your consideration ads? Or is there is some statement from the studio on the screeners sent out? Sometimes these nominations seem to come out of nowhere. Thanks.

Along with their nominating ballots, every branch except the actors branch receives a “reminder list” of the qualifying achievements in each category. This year, those lists included as many as 274 films, depending on the category, and members were allowed to vote for anything on the list. (They vote for the name of the film, not the name of the nominee: in the case of Best Director, for instance, a member wanting to nominate James Cameron would write “Avatar.”)

Things are more complicated for the actors branch, because the number of potential nominees is in the thousands, not the hundreds. Their “reminder list” was a 63-page booklet, mailed separately, that listed all 274 eligible films, along with the entire cast of each film. Those cast members were listed in order of billing: in the case of “Nine,” for instance, the first line read as follows: “Fergie. Kate Hudson. Judi Dench. Nicole Kidman. Penelope Cruz. Marion Cotillard.”

The Academy did not suggest the category to which each actor belongs; instead, a separate letter from the actors branch governors told the voters, “It is we, the individual members of the Actors branch who make” that determination. The letter specifically tells members that they are not bound by “for your consideration” ads or the decisions made by other awards shows.

Certainly, studios try to steer votes toward one category or another; in the case of “Nine,” the Weinstein Company campaigned for Cruz for Best Supporting Actress, Cotillard for the much more competitive Best Actress category. Studios put these suggestions on the screeners sent to Academy members, but voters are free to disregard those suggestions, as they did last year when they gave Kate Winslet a Best Actress nomination for “The Reader” when Weinstein had been campaigning for a Supporting Actress nod.

Perhaps voters agreed with Weinstein that Cotillard belonged in the Best Actress category; perhaps she did get votes for Supporting Actress, but Cruz got more. PricewaterhouseCoopers knows, but they’re not telling.

Mark asks:

Like a lot of Oscar geeks, I’d love to know the specific results of past years’ races. Do the records of the actual nomination and vote tallies even exist anywhere, and what’s the likelihood they’d ever be released (maybe xx years after the ceremony, or after all the nominees for a given year have died)?

I’m with you, Mark: I’d love to see the results, too. (I mean, how close was that “Crash” victory over “Brokeback Mountain,” anyway?) I’ve asked the PricewaterhouseCoopers folks about it, and they tell me that the results are kept for as long as they deem necessary, and then destroyed. Beyond that, they’re vague – but I suspect that by the time all the nominees in a category have died, the records will have long since been destroyed.

In rare cases, the Academy does ask PwC for figures, but these are always for the purpose of internal investigations.  (The two instances I’m aware of came in 1995, after “Hoop Dreams” didn’t get a documentary nomination, and last December, when James Toback charged that his film “Tyson” was cheated out of a spot on the doc shortlist by a single committee member with a grudge. In the first case, Price-Waterhouse supplied the figures minus the names of individual voters; in the latter case, the accounting firm did its own investigation and reported the results to the Academy.)

PwC is hired to do the Academy’s bidding, so any change in the policy would have to come from AMPAS, which to me seems notably disinclined to ever release those figures. The last time they did so was 1936, when they revealed that “Mutiny on the Bounty” won by a substantial margin over “The Informer” and “Captain Blood,” and that the actress and actor runners-up (to Bette Davis and Victor MacLagan) were Katharine Hepburn and write-in candidate Paul Muni.

In other words, don’t hold your breath.


Gary asks:

Can a film win Best Picture without any nominations for acting OR writing? I went through every year and if I remember correctly, “Cavalcade” and “Grand Hotel” are the only ones … If you ask me, “Avatar” wasn’t worthy of a Best Picture nomination because the writing and acting was quite disappointing (and I feel the motion capture component accounts for about 25% or possibly 33% of the performances).

If you don’t have the support of the acting and writing branches, you’ve lost almost 30 percent of the Academy. That makes winning Best Picture awfully hard, as the record clearly indicates. (And back when “Grand Hotel” and “Cavalcade” won, the makeup of the Academy was so dramatically different as to make the precedent virtually meaningless.)

I’ve written about some of this before, but I’ll summarize:

If any picture can turn the trick and win without acting and writing nods, it’s probably “Avatar.” The film has already beaten all the odds at the boxoffice, and picked up a good chunk of voters who view it as such a transformative, groundbreaking experience that it’d be crazy to vote for anything else. And it doesn’t hurt that “Avatar” is the reason the Oscar show will see its ratings increase dramatically.

“Slumdog Millionaire” did it without an acting nomination; “Titanic” did it without a writing nod. Can “Avatar” do it without either? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility.

This one comes from Peter Howell, the film critic for the Toronto Star, who wanted my opinion for a story he was working on. (You can find his piece here.)

I spoke to an Oscar voter recently who … wants “The Hurt Locker” to win Best Picture, and he thinks he has a plan to make it happen. On his ballot, he’s just going to put a "1" next to “The Hurt Locker.” He’s not going to rank the other nine films, the way the Academy wants voters to do this year. He figures this will prevent a second or third choice from coming up the ranks. He’s talking it up with other voters, hoping they’ll follow suit ….

Do you see any merit in this guy’s idea? Could he in fact rig the vote to ensure a “Hurt Locker” win, using this strategy?

First, that strategy is perfectly legal, and it will indeed prevent his vote from going to any other movie.

But it doesn’t accomplish a damn thing to help “Hurt Locker” that wouldn’t also be accomplished by ranking it Number One and then filling out the rest of his ballot.

One of the key points of the preferential tally is that it eliminates the need to play games like this. Your vote goes to the film ranked first on your ballot, and it STAYS there unless that film is eliminated. As long as your favorite remains in the running, the rest of your ballot cannot help any other movie to "come up in the ranks."

(Remember, you’re not giving 10 points to your favorite, nine points to your second favorite, etc. You’re casting one vote, for one film.)

Essentially, the process asks every voter, "Out of these 10 movies, which is your favorite?" After everybody answers, it eliminates the movie with the fewest votes, and then says, "Out of these nine remaining films, which is your favorite?" Then, "Out of these eight, which is your favorite?" Etc.

Yes, your voter’s strategy guarantees that his answer will always be, "’The Hurt Locker’ is my favorite." But ranking “Hurt Locker” first and then completing the rest of the ballot gives the exact same answer.

All he’s doing is withdrawing his voice from the process in the unlikely event that “Hurt Locker” drops out of the running. Refusing to rank any other film will not prevent that from happening, and indicating a second and third choice will not help it to happen.

So no, he can’t rig the voting this way.

Now, if “The Hurt Locker” is the ONLY film he can accept as a best picture winner, then he should go ahead with his plan, knowing that he’s not really accomplishing anything that his Number One ranking wouldn’t already do.

But if he wants a say in case his favorite doesn’t win, then he ought to at least rank a few runners-up. And, you know, wouldn’t he want the people who are voting for “An Education” and “A Serious Man” and “District 9” to fill out the rest of their ballots, ranking “Hurt Locker” second to give it a boost when those films fall out?

If he really wants to be effective, he shouldn’t be lobbying his fellow “Hurt Locker” supporters to withhold votes from everything else. He should be going to people who prefer some of the less-likely candidates, and persuading them to give his film those Number Two rankings that will most likely never come into play on his own ballot.

Just Curious asks:

Is it true that voters who wait until last minute are throwing away their vote due to the new voting weights and rules?
Absolutely not. The PricewaterhouseCoopers staff does not count a single vote until the deadline has passed and all the ballots are in. It makes no difference whatsoever when they receive your ballot — as long as PwC has it by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 2, your vote counts.  

Besides, the new preferential system for counting final Best Picture ballots makes it impossible to begin counting until all the votes are in.  

I’ve been told by PwC partner Rick Rosas that lots of Oscar voters typically cast their ballots early, but that there’s always a rush of ballots arriving in the mail and by hand delivery on the deadline day. And all of them count exactly the same.

Our new feature kicked off with two questions from a friend of TheWrap …

With the new system, are all the categories going to be voted in the new preferential style, or is it just Best Picture?

Just Best Picture. Every other category on the ballot will work the way it has in the past: voters will check a box next to whichever nominee they prefer, and the film with the most votes wins.  

But in the Best Picture category — which used to be listed in the middle of the Oscar ballot, but will now be in a separate, detachable section — voters will be asked to rank the nominees in order of preference, one through 10. Those ballots will then be tallied using the preferential system (for a full-blown explanation, click here) in which the film with the fewest Number One votes will be eliminated, and its votes redistributed based on the film listed second on those ballots.  Eventually, one film will wind up with more than 50 percent of the vote, and will be named the Academy’s Best Picture of 2009.

Why was this change made this year?

When the board of governors expanded the category from five to 10 nominees, the Academy created the possibility that in a year when no film was a clear favorite, a movie could be named Best Picture with as little as 15 to 20 percent of the vote, or even less.  Changing to a preferential tally means that while the winner isn’t necessarily the film with the most Number One votes, it is the consensus favorite of the entire membership, not just the favorite of a small, passionate minority. 

(You love the Oscars, but do you understand how the voting actually works? Steve Pond does; send your questions here, and he’ll untangle it for you. Just don’t ask how Roberto Benigni landed that Best Actor Oscar.)

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