As awards season rolls on, and with Oscar nominations imminent on January 23rd, you may be wondering how, exactly, do these Oscar nominations work? Who decides who gets nominated? Well, it’s a complicated process involving lots of math, but here’s what you need to know.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of around 7,000 filmmakers and film professionals, and these are the people that vote for the Oscars. You have to either go through a rigorous application process or be invited to join The Academy (almost every nominee gets an invite), and the organization itself is divided up into 17 specific branches. There’s a branch for actors, a branch for directors, a branch for editing and so on and so forth.
Nominees for each category are selected by votes from members of these specific branches. For example, only actors get to select nominees for the acting categories, and only directors get to select the nominees for Best Director. In other words, you have only fellow directors to blame for those Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow snubs, not the Academy at large.
However, when it comes to the Best Picture category, everyone gets to vote. For this category, a voting member must submit a list of between five and 10 nominees; for every other category, a voting member submits a list of no more than five nominees.
But how do these individual ballots turn into the final nominations? This is where the math comes in.
When submitting a list of preferred nominees, Academy members rank them according to preference. The nomination ballots are initially sorted based on the voters’ first-place ranking. If a selection reaches enough first-place votes—sometimes called the “magic number”—it becomes a nominee. This “magic number” is tabulated by taking the total number of ballots received in a given category and dividing it by the total number of possible nominees plus one. If a selection receives this magic number of votes (or more), it becomes a nominee. For example, say the magic number is 333 and Saoirse Ronan received 337 Best Actress #1 votes. In this case, she automatically becomes a nominee.
But then what happens to everyone’s second, third, fourth, and fifth place votes? Well, after that first pass, the accountants of Pricewaterhouse Coopers (who are responsible for handling all this math mumbo jumbo) sort through the remaining ballots and remove the stack with the fewest votes. This stack is then reassigned according to voters’ second-place selection—say Ryan Reynolds received the fewest first place votes, so his stack is then counted according to the second place selections. The ballots continue to be redistributed in this manner until the magic number is reached or until there are only five nominees remaining.
From here, once all the nominations ballots have been counted, new ballots are sent out to every Academy member. For this process, after the nominees have been chosen, everyone gets to vote on every category from the list of nominees chosen by that category’s experts. So after the final list of nominations is announced, Rob Lowe gets to vote not only for Best Actor, but also for Best Costume Design, Best Short Film, and Best Cinematography. So while the nomination process is shepherded by experts in every individual category, the final winners are chosen by the esteemed members of the entire Academy.