The Oscars are on Sunday, and it’s a very tight year in a number of races, including (and especially) Best Picture. Before I get to my full predictions on Friday, I wanted to talk about the big category, and how voting for Best Picture works using what’s called a preferential ballot system. By now you’re probably aware that the Academy adopted a new voting system when it expanded the number of Best Picture nominees 10 years ago. But what you might not know is how this preferential ballot works, and why it doesn’t necessarily result in a winner with the most first place votes.
The preferential ballot only comes into play only in the Best Picture race, not in any of the other Oscar categories, but it’s a complicated and admittedly flawed system. The idea is that this kind of ballot awards the film with the broadest support amongst Academy members, but in practice, it doesn’t always mean the movie that most voters agree is the “best” of the year wins.
So how does the preferential ballot work exactly? Well first, Academy members are asked to rank the Best Picture nominees from first to last, in this year’s case from 1-8. All of the #1 votes for films are then tabulated, but if a film has failed to receive over 50% of the vote after this first round (which is likely to happen), the tabulators then look for the film with the lowest number of #1 votes. This film is then removed from the race, and the tabulators then look at all of the ballots that put that film at #1 to see what those voters chose as their #2 pick. These #2 votes from the excised ballot now become #1 votes and are distributed accordingly to the films that are still in the race. As the process continues, if an excised film’s #2 vote also happens to be an excised film, tabulators then move on to the #3 movie on that ballot, and so on and so forth.
This process continues, round after round, until a film earns over 50% of the #1 votes. So, in practice, #2 and #3 votes actually start to count as #1 votes, which is why the Best Picture winner from the preferential ballot tends to be the most agreeable choice, not necessarily the “best” choice. Divisive films like Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri or The Revenant lose out to more broadly liked films like Spotlight and The Shape of Water.
Hopefully this will help you better understand what goes into predicting the Best Picture winner, as one not only has to consider which film will get the most #1 votes, but also (and maybe moreso) which film gets the most #2 and #3 votes. So your questions this year will be, is Green Book actually that divisive in real life, or just online? Could Roma win based on a heavy number of #2 and #3 votes for its craft?
If you’re still confused as to how this works (I know, it’s complicated), check out the handy infographic below, courtesy of the folks at the LA Times. And look for the rest of my Oscar predictions here on the site tomorrow and Saturday, before the telecast on Sunday night.