Oscars: The wacky way the Academy counts votes, and the results of our 'If You Were an Oscar Voter' poll

oscarImage Credit: ©A.M.P.A.S.Three weeks ago, we asked 2,000 EW.com readers to vote in our Best Picture Oscar poll. Just like the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you ranked your 10 favorite films of 2010 in order — from No. 1 to No. 10 — and we then tabulated the results using the same complex preferential voting system the Academy has used since 1934 to determine its Oscar nominees. Well, the results are in, and it seems as though EW.com readers and Oscar voters possess strikingly similar tastes. In alphabetical order, the 10 Best Picture nominees selected by EW.com readers were: 

- 127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–Part 1
Inception
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
The Town
Toy Story 3
True Grit

Swap out Harry Potter and The Town for The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone, and you’ll have the same 10 films the Academy singled out this week. Curious about how your ballots were sorted and counted (and then re-sorted and re-counted) to wind up with these 10 nominees? We checked in with Rick Rosas, one of the lead PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants in charge of tabulating the ballots for the Oscar nominations, to make sure we correctly understood each step of the process. Here’s our geektacular explanation of Oscar’s preferential voting process, in all its mathematical glory:

(1) First, some ground rules. The Academy is made up of 5,755 voting members, each of whom belongs to one of 15 branches. Each branch selects the nominations for its respective category, so directors vote for Best Director, cinematographers vote for Best Cinematography, etc. You cannot belong to multiple branches; however, you can vote for other categories if you’ve previously been nominated in that category. For example, Peter Jackson, a member of the directors branch, can also vote for the writing categories since he’s been nominated (multiple times) for his screenwriting. Everyone in the Academy gets to vote for Best Picture.

(2) We’ll be dealing with the Best Picture category, but this preferential process applies to nearly every category. (Original Song, Animated Feature, Foreign Language Film, and the three shorts categories use different systems.) For any category that uses the preferential method, Academy members are asked to rank their choices in order. Since there are 10 nominees for Best Picture, voters may list up to 10 films on their Best Picture ballot. You may pick fewer than 10 movies, but the more movies you include, the greater the chance your ballot will help a picture get nominated. On the other hand, listing the same film multiple times has the opposite effect — it diminishes the chance your ballot will count.

(3) Let’s get to it: First, each Best Picture ballot is sorted into a pile based on that voter’s No. 1 film. A movie must receive at least one first-choice pick to remain in play. In our EW.com mock vote, 172 films out of an eligible 248 were instantly eliminated because they received no No. 1 votes — including such acclaimed works as Animal Kingdom and Waiting for “Superman.” Yet someone ranked Vampires Suck at No. 1, allowing it to move on.

(4) One way a film can secure a nomination is by reaching a predetermined quota, or “magic number.” With 2,000 ballots, our simulation’s magic number was 182. Here’s the formula for obtaining the magic number: [# of ballots] / [# of total nominee slots + 1]. We had 2,000 ballots, and the number of total nominee slots for Best Picture is 10, so our equation looked like this: [2000] / [10+1] = [2000] / [11] = 181.8. Regardless of the result, you always round up to nearest whole number. So our magic number became 182. And in the event your initial result was already a whole number, you then add one to it to obtain your magic number. (If your initial result was 150, your magic number would be 151).

To make things even more confusing, the magic number slightly decreases each round as ballots are voided. In our mock vote, for instance, 98 ballots were ultimately voided (meaning that those ballots failed to help any film get nominated). So our magic number during the last round of counting was: [2000 total ballots – 98 voided ballots] / [11] = [1902] / [11] = 172.9, which was rounded up to 173.

(5) If you made it past Step 4, congratulations! So we know our initial magic number is 182. In our mock vote, four movies had at least 182 first-choice votes: Inception (425), The Social Network (401), Black Swan (300), and Toy Story 3 (196). They became instant nominees. Normally, when a movie passes the magic number, all of its ballots are set aside. However, there’s one wrinkle…

(6) For any movie that initially exceeds the magic number by at least 20 percent, there’s an extra (and extra-complicated) step: Each ballot is still worth only one point, but that point is split between the voter’s already-selected No. 1 and his or her next eligible choice. For example, Inception received more than twice the No. 1 votes required to get nominated, so its ballots were re-sorted and now worth half a point, with a half point going to another film. Why half a point? More math! Again, this only applies to films that exceed the magic number by 20 percent [or 182 X 1.2 = 218.4], and this step only occurs after the first round of ballot sorting — it’s never repeated in a later round.

Inception received 425 No. 1 votes, clearly passing the 218.4 votes need to activate this so-called “surplus” rule. The formula: [# of ballots the film received – magic number] / [# of ballots film received] = [425 – 182] / [425] = [243] / [425] = 0.57. This result is always rounded down to the nearest 10th, so for Inception, it became 0.5. Thus, every voter who selected Inception as No. 1 has their ballot redistributed to his or her next eligible choice, with each ballot now being worth only 0.5 points, or half a vote. Why include all this extra math? It assures Academy members that should they pick an extremely popular film, their vote won’t be wasted. In our simulation, the ballots for Inception, The Social Network, and Black Swan were redistributed, and as a result, The King’s Speech got enough new points to pass the magic number — it’s nominated.

(7) Take a breath — the trickiest math is finished. At this stage, every film with less than 1 percent of the total vote is disqualified. These ballots are redistributed to their next ranked pick — as long as that movie is still in contention (and not already nominated). If your No. 2 film was already eliminated or nominated, then we proceed to your No. 3 choice, and so forth. “You are essentially casting one vote,” explains Academy executive director Bruce Davis, “and the system gives your vote to the picture that most needs it.” If a ballot runs out of selections, that ballot is voided and no longer in play, which is why it’s important for voters to list 10 different choices.

(8) None of our remaining movies hit the magic number, so we kept eliminating the film with the fewest ballots and reassigning those ballots. This continued until we ended up with a total of 10 nominees. Along the way, Shutter Island, Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The Kids Are All Right were eliminated (in that order). The five films left standing — 127 Hours, The Fighter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1, The Town, and True Grit — thereby snatched the remaining Best Picture slots, even though none of them ever reached the magic number.

And that’s it! What you should take away from this exercise, besides a migraine, is that a movie requires passionate support to get an Oscar nomination. For instance, The Kids Are All Right dominated the lower slots on our readers’ ballots. But with only 33 No. 1 votes, it started the race too far behind its competitors. A film or performance doesn’t capture a nomination simply by being liked by everyone — it needs to be loved. Luckily for The Kids Are All Right, the Academy appreciated the movie a bit more than our readers.

Comments (54 total) Add your comment
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  • steph

    this made my brain bleed.

    • Geek

      It made my brain grow.

    • David

      I agree with all of these pics, except id swap 127 Hours for Kids are All Right… Im not a huge Potter fan but I LOVED it. After the list I stopped reading………… and made a sandwich.

  • bruno

    you lost me at 4), dude.

    • dee

      same here.

      • Jessica Asillo

        I stopped reading after “The Academy is made up of 5,755 voting members, each of whom belongs to one of 15 branches.”

      • Ben

        same same

      • Erin

        Me too. Too much.

      • Bao

        now I understand why the Oscar is so bizzare

  • Tye-Grr

    Wow. Quite the process. Thanks for giving us a look though, it was very interesting! I like seeing how all of this works, and how the future nominees ultimately get nominated.

    • ew-bot

      agreed!

  • Madison

    True Grit

    • Japanese Japanese HIROSHI

      With this formula, IMO, True Grit has a higher chance to reach TOP 3 in the end. But it looks like the BP race is almost virtually reserved for TKS and TSN.

      @ JY: Thanks for a good read. Seriously speaking, I wonder how many out of these 5,7xx eligible members DID actually watch (properly) all the nominated films last year (the HL year). . . And how many simply filled in the ten slots just for the sake of filling-in . . . In the perfect world, you should only watch ALL ten (or five when- and wherever applicable) nominated films to be truly eligible to vote (for BP category and respective ones as well).

  • melissa

    Wow, this is actually really fascinating!

  • Jeff

    I’ve always thought the procedure was very complicated, but very thorough. Thanks for the great explanation! I know the voting results will never be released, but I wonder what the Academy gave the most number one votes. If we knew that, we’d be able to pick the Best Picture winner now!

  • Carrie #2

    I can’t believe I actually followed this, but this was actually very interesting. Thanks for the insight, EW! Also, may I say I like this list better than the Academy’s? I liked both movies that made it in, and though The Kids Are All Right deserves to be in the top 10, I’m happier about HP7 and The Town making it here.

    • Meg

      I agree about HP7, but I have a feeling it’s going to end up on a similar trajectory as Lord of the Rings–that film only won major awards once the series was completed following “Return of the King.” If HP were to receive any nominations, it’ll most likely be for the 2011 Oscar nominees (and I do hope so–the films have gotten poignantly more beautiful and meaningful as we head towards the conclusion).

      • Amy

        Though all three LOTR movies at least got nominated for Best Picture. I think Harry Potter deserves recognition, but I don’t think it will get a whole lot from the Academy.

      • Ann

        I agree. But I don’t know that it will get any nominations (other than the art direction type nominations it already gets), since I think the Academy looks at it as a “kids” series and doesn’t give it the respect it deserves. But if it finally manages to get any acting noms for HP7.2, I think Alan Rickman has been consistently amazing as Snape.

      • DRG

        Alan Rickman’s big moment as Snape is coming in the next HP movie so yeah, if there are any acting nominations are headed its way it should be for him, although I should add that Imelda Staunton really deserved a nomination for “Order of the Phoenix” a few years back.

  • Patrick Star

    Quite fascinating. I would put my secret favourites 2nd and 3rd on my top 10 list (if I were a voter) and the ‘half point distribution’ would go to them, getting voted in the process. But how does the Academy narrow down the movies that released throughout the year? How do they pick the movies that are eligible?

  • William Whitaker

    Thank you for doing this. So interesting. I’ve always wondered how the nominations work. Seems like a great process.

  • sbwm

    Excellent. Thanks for the clear explanation. At first I hesitated to read but it really is very interesting.

  • Allison

    Also throwing in my thanks – I’m the unofficial knower of useless but cool information in my family and will enjoy sharing this at some point.

  • Lisa Simpson

    This makes quantum physics look easy.

    • Macy

      hahahahahaha no

  • jared4ever

    WOW, thank you so much, this is stuff I’ve always wanted to know!

  • Voodoo

    Oh come on, HP7 is one of the worst of the series.

  • DN

    Hollywood desperately needs Steven Spielberg. Remember the days of fun, well made movies being made and nominated? And Mr. Spielberg seemed to lead the pack: “Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.”. These were movies that you wanted to see and could sit through without checking your watch.

    And it’s far past time to have a Best Comedy award. “Animal House”, “Stripes”, “Caddyshack”, “The Blues Brothers”, “Slapshot”. They all would have statuettes today, and, maybe even Best Picture if they would’ve been considered.

    • Zturk

      They have him in Christopher Nolan…

      • disappointed

        J.J. Abrams is going to be the new Spielberg.

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