Behind the scenes: How Oscar nominees are selected

oscarImage Credit: A.M.P.A.S.Oscar-watchers, this is for you.

The nomination ballots for the 80th Academy Awards are due this Saturday at 5 p.m. PST, at which point a team of about a dozen accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers will tabulate the votes. It will take seven days of counting to determine the nominees. It takes that long because the Academy uses the rather complicated preferential-voting system. Furthermore, the counting is done by hand. That’s right — in an age of computers, the Oscar nominations are still determined by moving thousands of paper ballots into pile after pile after pile.

Since this process seems so contrary to public perception, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited a group of journalists to a demonstration of the voting procedure. Accountants Brad Oltmanns and Rick Rosas, who will lead the balloting process for the Academy this year (and, thereby, will be the only two people in the world to know the actual winners before the show airs), conducted a mock voting tabulation for the 1939 Best Actress race. We journalists voted for nominees and then observed what happened to our ballots.

The following is a detailed and yet hopefully clear description of exactly how the Oscar nominees are determined.

(1) The Academy is made up of approximately 6,000 members. Each member belongs to a branch — the directing branch, the writing branch, the cinematography branch, etc. You can’t belong to multiple branches, so the Coen brothers are out of luck even though they direct, write, and edit their movies.

(2) Each branch votes within its own category: Actors vote for all the acting categories; directors vote in the direction category; and so on. Everybody gets to vote for Best Picture.

(3) Voters are asked to list up to five names, ranked in order of preference. The Academy instructs voters to “follow their hearts” because the voting process doesn’t penalize for picking eccentric choices, as we will see. Also, listing the same person or film twice doesn’t help their cause — in fact, it actually diminishes the chance that the voter’s ballot will be counted at all.

(4) A “magic number” is devised for each award category. This number is calculated by taking the total number of ballots received for that category and dividing it by the number of possible nominees plus one. So, for Best Actress, say that 600 ballots were received. There are always five nominees chosen for Best Actress, so you divide 600 ballots by six (five potential nominees plus one), which equals 100. That’s your magic number.

(5) The magic number is important because as soon as a potential nominee reaches that number, they automatically become an official nominee. And so, the counting begins…

(6) The ballots are sorted into piles based upon each voter’s first-choice selection. A nominee must have at least one first-choice vote to be eligible. If any nominee reaches the magic number based solely upon first-choice selections, they’re in. So, for the 1939 race, let’s say Bette Davis received 125 first-choice votes. She’s now an official nominee, and all the ballots that listed her as a first-choice are set aside — those ballots are done.

(7) We now have four nominee slots left to fill. The actress who received the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and those ballots are redistributed to the other piles based upon those voters’ second-place selections and another round of tabulations begin. Let’s say Vivien Leigh started out with 98 first-choice votes, and now has received two more votes from ballots that were redistributed. She has reached the magic number (100) — she’s in! All the ballots in Vivien Leigh’s pile are set aside.

(8) This process is continued. The actress who has the fewest ballots in her pile has those ballots redistributed to other piles based upon the voters’ second-choice selections, and if need be, their third-choice, fourth-choice, and fifth-choice selections. If a ballot runs out of selections, that ballot is voided and is no longer in play, which is why it’s important for voters to list five different nominees.

(9) The magic number will drop as ballots are voided. For instance, if 12 ballots are voided, the new magic number becomes 588 divided by 6 = 98.

(10) Actresses continue to be eliminated and ballots redistributed until five nominees reach the most current magic number, OR until there are only 5 nominees left in the running.

And there you have it. What this process means is that it’s better to have a small but passionate group of voters who love your film than a larger but less passionate group. And it explains how a small foreign movie such as City of God was nominated in four major categories — it inspired enough supporters who most likely placed it No. 1 or No. 2 on their ballots to let it squeak into the final five. Having a lot of  No. 4 or No. 5 votes isn’t as advantageous because most of those ballots will have already been counted toward another film.

And in case you’re wondering, the procedure for choosing the Oscar winner is much simpler. Once the nominations are decided, the entire Academy can vote for every category. Each member gets one vote per category, and the nominee that receives the most votes wins. It takes the accountants only three days to determine those winners.

Academy voters are discouraged from voting in categories they don’t fully understand (who knows exactly what sound editing is?), and from voting in categories in which they haven’t seen all the nominees. But try convincing a member not to vote in a certain technical category — checking boxes is just way too much fun.

So, when the nominations are announced on the morning of Jan. 22, now you know how and why about 1,700 “person-hours” went into the effort. Let’s hope there still is an actual Academy Awards show this year. At the voting demonstration, Sid Ganis, the Academy’s president, said the show was on and that they are doing everything they normally would be doing right now. But, only time (and many disgruntled writers) will tell.

How much are you hoping the Oscars will go on this year? And please tell me that my explanation of the voting process made sense.

Comments (42 total) Add your comment
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  • Michelle

    Who knew it took that much work? Great explanation!

  • Anthony

    I love the preferential voting system! I always understood and respected it!

  • Broadway Baby

    Wow – who knew? I’m glad I do now. Thanks!

  • Jeanne

    Thanks so much for the explanation, I didn’t know any of that before! I really hope the Oscars go on this year. It is to me what the Superbowl is to most other people.

  • Sailor

    Great information. Thanks!

  • char

    That’s so good to know! I really really hope I don’t have to cancel my annual Oscars watching partey

  • Valerie

    Wow, it’s complicated, but great explanation. I knew only the people working in a certain category decided on the nominees, but not how they were actually decided. Very interesting !
    By the way, did the journalists come up with new nominees for the 1939 Best Actress ?

  • jcarla

    I want to know who the journalist’s nominees vs. the actual 1939 noms and who won.

  • Laura

    Wow, that’s insane. It makes sense though, and I rather like that they do it that way. Thanks for the explanation!

  • KitchenMaus

    This is the most informative Popwatch post ever–thank you! Fascinating information!

  • Tim Lade

    You’d think to save time, money, energy, etc., someone would have been able to design a computer than uses scantron technology, or even an internet voting system. That’s jut the university administrator in me though. Thank you thought for a PopWatch article I have actually enjoyed and found informative instead of the crap that this blog has decayed into. I am sick of reading puff pieces on what song is super popular or what actor wore what or is doing whoever. Let us go back to the glory days of articles like this with writers like Whitty P brightning my day!

  • Verne

    Thank You for the excellent explanation! Very concise, and quite understandable. I for one very much hope the show will go on this year, writers or none. OSCAR speaks for Himself!

  • Dan TO

    Wow, it really is like voting for prom queen.

  • whimsey

    Who’d a thunk it? Great blog John!

  • Middento

    This is very helpful — only it might be good to remind people that some of the categories are *not* voted on by everybody: Foreign Film, Documentary and both shorts categories.

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