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How Does Oscar Voting Work?

Every year, controversy mounts over some Oscar selection. Whether it’s the lack of women director nominees, not enough racial diversity among the acting categories, or the choices made in the documentary or foreign-language category, the Academy’s picks are sure to be questioned. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a concerted effort to expand the membership over the past few years, in hopes of addressing some of these concerns. But many Oscar watchers are still unclear about who the Oscar voters are and how the coveted little gold men are handed out. Here’s a brief rundown of how the Academy Awards work.

Who votes on the Oscars?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences currently has 8,469 eligible Oscar voters, a jump of 35% from four years ago (6,261 voters in 2015). Each person belongs to one of 17 branches. Each branch nominates for its own category — e.g., editors nominate editors, actors nominate for the four acting categories. Everyone gets to nominate best picture. For the final voting of the winner, all branches vote for everything.

What are the branches?

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Actors, cinematographers, costume designers, directors, documentary, editors, makeup artists/hairstylists, music, producers, production design, short films/feature animation, sound, visual effects and writers. Each of these has at least one Oscar category. There are also three branches that aren’t represented with awards: casting directors, executives and marketing/public relations.

How do you become a member?

Basically, anyone can apply, if they have feature film credits. Each candidate must be approved by each branch’s executive committee, then submitted to the board. If you’d like to inquire about joining, email member relations.

Why are there nine best-picture nominees this year, but eight last year?

Starting with films for 2009, the Academy doubled the number of best picture contenders to 10, hoping for more varied fare. For most of Oscar history, voters nominated box-office favorites like “The Godfather,” “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings.” But in the 21st century, after the “Lord of the Rings” wins, hit movies were suddenly not being nominated and prestige indie films became more popular among voters. (In 2018, the Academy tried to add a category for “popular films,” but that idea was quickly struck down.)

Oscar noms were being dominated by arthouse films, with acclaimed films like “The Dark Knight” excluded from nominations, so AMPAS expanded the category. Some members complained that 10 nominees would dilute the prestige of a best picture nomination, so two years later, AMPAS decided to make it flexible, for five to 10 nominations. Everyone gets a ballot and ranks their top choices for best picture. According to new rules, a film has to get 5% of first-place votes to qualify.

Why do some people say the best-picture final ballot is so unusual?

In other categories, AMPAS members vote for one choice. But with so many best-picture contenders, the Academy didn’t want a film to earn an Oscar with only 10% of the votes. So AMPAS uses preferential voting, in which the voters put their choices in order of preference. The PricewaterhouseCooper accountants begin by tallying all No. 1 choices. If a film earns more than 50% of the vote, it wins, but it’s doubtful that this happens often. So then PwC goes to No. 2 choices, and if needed, to No. 3, but accountants say it’s unlikely the counting will go much beyond that. If Film A earns the most No. 1 votes — say 30% — it seems like a favorite. But if Film B earned only 20% of the No. 1 votes, but was overwhelmingly popular in No. 2 votes, that could end up winning, especially if a lot of voters put Film A as their No. 4 or No. 9 choice, for example. In other words, a film may not win in terms of hard numbers, but in terms of consensus: Most voters agree that this is their favorite or at least ONE of their favorites.

It’s complicated. Is preferential voting the Oscar equivalent of the electoral college? 

Exactly.

Why is the Oscar show so long?

The Academy insists that all 24 categories be presented during the telecast. In a three-hour slot, that only leaves about 30 minutes left over for an opening monologue (if there is a host), any musical performances, the In Memoriam segment, recaps of the Governors Awards and Sci-Tech Awards, best picture film clips, etc. In contrast, the Grammys present most of their awards outside the telecast. In 2019, the Oscar producers tried to reduce the number of presentations on air, and were met with huge protests, including some from AMPAS board members. So they gave up on the idea, at least for now.

Who is on the board?

The board consists of three members elected from each branch, plus three governors at large who are appointed.

Will the Oscar show change if ratings fall?

Any substantial change to the Oscar structure needs the approval of the AMPAS board. Have you ever tried to get 54 people to agree on something? It isn’t easy. The show’s producers always try a few new things, but a dramatic overhaul is not likely.

Why do people campaign for an Oscar?

Advertising and promotion are part of Hollywood’s DNA. If they do something they’re proud of, they promote it. With awards, there’s also a practical reason: The studio wants to make sure voters have seen their film. Though critics see dozens of films every month, AMPAS voters are often working at their jobs and have families, so they don’t have time to see every new movie. A campaign is a way of drawing attention to a film.

Why is winning so important?

Hollywood is like any other business: It’s driven by money and ego. Everybody in the film biz is looking for their next job, and an Oscar can open job opportunities and boost your salary. A best-picture win can increase the fee for TV, streaming and any other format for many years to come. Plus, studios create awards campaigns so they can win the favor of top talent, whether stars or behind-the-camera people. It’s a way of saying, “Look how good we treat our people! Stick with us.”

What does the average campaign cost?

There is no average. Netflix in 2019 had five or six big films that were contenders in multiple categories so they spent much more than a small film that focused on one category. Campaigns can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to an estimated $50 million. (Studios are very secretive about how much they spend.)

What does that money buy?

The most expensive elements are for TV advertising and for travel arrangements. An Oscar frontrunner may be flown from Los Angeles to New York and back again many times, then London, then to various film festivals. It adds up. Also, studios rent screening rooms to show their films, they send out DVD screeners, throw parties “in honor of” a contender, rent billboards, take out ads in print and online, and spend in other areas such as brochures and receptions.

Can you buy an Oscar?

No. As a studio head once told Variety, “I can spend money to make sure voters see my film. But I can’t make them love the film; that’s up to them.” But the myth of buying an Oscar is usually perpetuated by the also-rans. Every category (aside from best picture) has four losers for every winner, so the loser can always say, “Eh, they only got the award because they outspent us.” Nobody wants to admit, “Maybe voters liked their movie better than mine.”

Isn’t it just a popularity contest?

If it were, Hugh Jackman, Keanu Reeves and Octavia Spencer would win every year. Being likable doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. In 2018, Rami Malek was everywhere, charming people at parties, Q&A sessions and awards shows. And he won an Oscar. On the other hand, Olivia Colman was busy overseas and was scarce on the awards circuit. And she won as well. There are no formulas for a successful campaign.

Why doesn’t the Academy simply ban all campaigning?

About 40 years ago, it tried. But legally, the move was defined as restraint of trade — in other words, in America you can’t stop a company from trying to conduct business. And though the Oscars are about creativity and talent, they’re also about business, with millions of dollars at stake. However, there are strict rules about what can be sent to voters, when parties can be held and what can be said on social media.

Does a win from the Golden Globes or SAG Awards boost a film’s chances at the Oscars?

No. This isn’t like presidential primaries where a candidate gathers up points with each victory. Ultimately, AMPAS members vote for the film they liked best. And sometimes they are in agreement with the Globes, SAG Awards, critics groups and guilds, but not always. They are very different voting groups.

Why do awards analysts say Oscars are affected by the Globes or New York or Los Angeles critics groups results?

Oscar analysts are trying to apply scientific principles to something that can’t be measured: personal taste. AMPAS keeps the results secret: We know who won, but not by how many votes, and we don’t know who came in second, third or fourth. So awards campaigners and journalists talk to voters to try to get a sense of their feelings, but there is always guesswork involved.

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