James Schamus Reveals Secrets of the Oscar Voting System (EXCLUSIVE)

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Ask the most informed Academy members how the nominations process for best picture works and you will find that, aside from some vague notion, they don’t know. Almost no one – even the most dedicated Oscar watcher — has a clue, which is surprising, since the ballots are weighted in a way that has an impact on which films end up getting nominated — even if the opacity of the process means we’ll never really know the full extent of that impact.

If you’ve read up on the nominations process, or have experienced filling out a ballot yourself, you know it all has something to do with “weighting” or “distributing” votes. Members write down five films in order of preference, and somehow those votes are weighted or sorted or redistributed until the final nominees are decided.

For the past couple of years, in an attempt to correct impressions that the move from five to 10 nominees has diluted the prestige in the best picture category, the Academy made changes to allow for any number between five and 10. The move cuts out possible nominations for films without enough support to deserve inclusion. How, exactly, will we end up with six, or seven, or however many nominations? The rules now stipulate that no film can be nominated without at least 5% of the total votes cast in first position. That’s technically true, however, only if you play with the ballots and weight the distribution of some of the second, third, fourth, and fifth choices that certain voters cast.

To explain that structure, let’s assume all 6,000 or so Academy members cast nominating ballots. How do those ballots, with their first through fifth place rankings, get counted?

In the first round, the Academy and the experts at PricewaterhouseCoopers establish a minimum number of votes to be assured a nomination. Since there are 10 possible slots, this cut-off is calculated by dividing all the ballots by 11 (if there are 6,000 ballots, that number would be 545.5, which is then rounded up to 546).

Why divide by 11 and then round up to the nearest whole number? Because only 10 or fewer films could ever reach 546 votes, so that’s the magic number to assure your film absolutely a place on the ballot. Not many films probably hit that cut-off on a first ballot, or even after a number of rounds of balloting, as evidenced by the Academy’s other rule – that no film can be nominated without at least 5% of the total ballots (or 300 votes) in its pile after a number of rounds of ballot redistribution.

How does this “redistribution” work? The votes for some top vote-getters can get redistributed. According to the rules, if a film gets 10% more than the needed 546 first-place votes, ALL the votes cast for that film get redistributed accorded to a weighted proportion. For example, if a film gets three times the votes needed to be nominated (in this case 1,638 votes), the Academy will calculate those votes in such a way that each vote for that film counts for just one-third of a vote toward the total needed. Why? If each vote is adjusted down to one-third of its value, the new total will now magically equal the minimum required for nomination. This means that each member who voted for that film has not used up his or her full vote, but has used up only the one-third needed for the nomination. That voter’s other two-thirds of a vote will now be redistributed to his or her next highest choice.

So if you vote for a very popular film in round one, your ballot counts toward the nomination of another film too; indeed, the more your vote reflects the current consensus, the more weight it will have going into round two. If you vote for a film that exceeds the cut-off three times over, only one-third of your initial vote is counted and two-thirds of your vote are left free for further voting. If you vote for a film that gets double the cut-off, then half your vote is eaten up in round one, and half is free for round two and beyond.

Another method of distribution involves the least popular films. All films that receive less than 1%, or fewer than 60, first-choice votes are eliminated. Any film with 60 or more votes will stay in the running, at least for another round or two, and your ballot will sit in that film’s pile. If you voted for a film with fewer than 60 votes, your vote will be redistributed to the next highest ranking film on your list that has not yet been eliminated or already nominated.

This paradigm, called preferential voting, comes from trying to make certain political elections more fair. For example, suppose your town has a city council made up of five members and there are two political parties with candidates. Now, suppose that Party A represents a clear majority of the city’s voters, and that Party A’s slate includes Susan, who is beloved by that majority. Minority Party B fields a slate of candidates who are incompetent and surly. Now, imagine citizens have just one vote to cast, and the top five candidates will be elected from those votes. Susan gets 80% – basically all of Party A’s ballots, plus a few independents and unsurly Party B voters. Susan is handily elected and other votes are scattered among the cranks of Party B.

At their first city council session, the cranks outvote Susan on every bill and ram through horrific legislation, to the dismay of most city residents. This is clearly a subversion of the democratic process. But if the city had used the preferential system used by the Academy and PWC, Susan’s fellow Party A candidates would get the benefit of the weight of her excess votes, and the city council would probably end up with a Party A majority, with perhaps one or two Party B members in the minority – a reflection of the public’s will.

It’s hard to say how or why best-picture nominations are treated the same way as votes for political decision-makers; unlike the city council members discussed above, less popular film nominees don’t gang up on the most popular nominee to defeat it – they just get fewer votes. The Academy voting rules, however, do treat members as if they were like voters for slates fielded by opposed political parties. That said, I can’t think of a fairer way myself to sort this stuff.

In any case, I hope the above explanation was clear. There are still some gray zones I can’t figure out. But, as far as I can tell, you now know how the nominations process actually works – congratulations!

(Thanks to Dan Hurwitz, Jonathan Halperyn, and Bryan Rozicki for helping to puzzle all the math out.)

James Schamus, a 20-year member of the Academy, is a three-time Oscar nominee. Until recently, he was the CEO at Focus Features and continues as a professor at Columbia while also preparing an untitled film with Ang Lee.