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The Oscars’ messed-up voting process, explained

Could the Oscars' weird voting process be responsible for some of the mediocre choices honored?
Could the Oscars' weird voting process be responsible for some of the mediocre choices honored?
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even those inclined to defend this year's lineup of Oscar nominees (particularly in Best Picture) will readily admit that the list ... could be better.

And yet the more I look at this list, the more I wonder if this isn't the new normal. What's more, what if the way the Oscars conducts its voting is essentially dooming them to these sorts of nominees — and winners?

In fact, it's very possible this year isn't a fluke. The milquetoast set of choices is the result of a process that is skewed toward producing disappointing sets of winners, a process that only adds to the ongoing frustrations with the awards body's lack of diversity.

Since 2009, when the Academy changed Best Picture from a straight popular vote to something much more convoluted (ostensibly to more accurately reflect the Academy's consensus), the winners have gotten much more self-congratulatory.

Instead of the most interesting, daring, creative films taking statues, the Academy is just as likely to end up with a scenario where the winner is the majority of voters' third-favorite film.

How the Oscar voting process has led to weird results

Birdman would be the third film about Hollywood to win Best Picture in six years, if it wins. (Fox Searchlight)

Academy members vote for nominees in late December and early January and then for winners in early February. (Here's the calendar.) They can do it either online or via paper ballot.

At the nominations stage, something called "instant runoff voting" is used to determine nominees in all categories. Instant runoff voting is used again for the Best Picture category when it comes time to choose winners. (Every other winner is chosen using a straightforward popular vote.)

But what is instant runoff voting? At its most basic level, it involves ranking a number of choices. Then the choice with the fewest votes is removed. And then those who voted for that candidate have their votes counted instead according to their second-favorite candidate. Then the candidate that now has the lowest votes is removed, and so on.

Election reformers advocate for instant runoff because it frees up voters to rank their preferences, rather than hedge their bets and vote for a candidate they don't really like for fear of accidentally electing a candidate they despise. (Think of the concern that Ralph Nader's presence in the 2000 election would swing enough potential Al Gore votes away to give the election to George W. Bush.)

If you're still confused, here's a pretty good video about instant runoff voting. (In the video, it's called the "alternative vote." The Oscars often call it the "preferential voting system.")

The problem is that the Academy has just 6,124 members, and particularly when voters are trying to choose multiple nominees (and especially within individual Academy branches), it's easy for those votes to be spread thin.

So the Academy has instituted certain hacks to the system to make it work better with a smaller voting pool. And it's those two factors — the smaller voting body and those hacks — that allow for the skew toward blandness.

The new Oscar voting process might reward mediocrity

We'll examine the nuts and bolts of the process in a second, but here's the gist of what's happened since the Academy switched to this new method in 2009.

In the 2000s, the Academy was actually shifting toward making bolder decisions for Best Picture.

After Russell Crowe's one-two punch of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (both very standard, Oscar-friendly choices), the Academy chose a cynical musical (Chicago), a fantasy epic (Return of the King), a tiny, short story boxing fable with a pro-euthanasia message (Million Dollar Baby), a wild ensemble film about racism (Crash), a dark crime epic (The Departed), another dark crime epic with an inconclusive ending no less (No Country for Old Men), and a movie about modern India (Slumdog Millionaire). I do not like all of these films — Crash is awful — but every single one of them is pretty far from a "typical" Academy choice.

In 2009, the Academy switched to the instant runoff system, and very quickly started rewarding movies about Hollywood. The Artist and Argo won in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and assuming Birdman wins this year, as I expect it to, it means fully 50 percent of the winners since the change in voting systems have been about backstage show business shenanigans. At Grantland, Mark Harris has pointed out how unusual it is for the Oscars to reward movies about movies — at least until recently.

Now, The Artist (a silent film), Argo (a thriller), and Birdman (a dark comedy seemingly shot in one take), are all pretty outside the Academy mainstream, at least on their surfaces.

But dig a little deeper, and it's easy to see that every single one of these films makes Hollywood types, especially actors, feel better about themselves and what they do. The films are all grand, stylish exercises in self-aggrandizement, exactly the sorts of things that will often end up in second or third place on a ranked ballot, and exactly the sorts of things that benefit from this voting system.

Of course, since 2009 the Oscars have also rewarded a riveting war thriller (The Hurt Locker), an uncompromising film about slavery (12 Years a Slave), and The King's Speech, perhaps the most Oscar-friendly film of the past 20 years. So this process doesn't necessarily mean only movies about the movies are going to win going forward. But combine Argo and The Artist with The King's Speech, and the overall trend toward bland self-congratulation seems all the more clear. (In fact, those three films won three years in a row.)

How the Oscars choose the Best Picture winner


The cast of Argo hangs out, reading over the script for the movie within the movie. (Warner Bros.)

Now let's take a look at how a bland film could win the top prize.

In Best Picture, with its five to 10 choices, Academy members are asked to rank as many nominees as they want to. The accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers (who count the ballots) then use the instant runoff method to find the victor. One film must eventually receive 50 percent of the vote plus one. (That means that if all 6,124 Academy members vote, the winner of Best Picture will receive at least 3,063 votes.)

If no film has 3,063 votes or more, then the film with the fewest votes is removed from the running. The second-place choices on those ballots are instead counted as first-place votes. And then the lowest film is dropped, and this goes on until one film receives 3,063 votes.

It's not to hard to imagine, say, that after four rounds of voting, The Imitation Game, a movie that seems likely to inspire a lot of people to rank it in second or third place, ends up victorious.

Let's take a look at how this would work (and assume that all Academy members voted, for simplicity's sake):

Round 1: Boyhood, 2,000 votes; Birdman, 1,600 votes; The Imitation Game, 1,000 votes; The Theory of Everything, 600 votes; The Grand Budapest Hotel, 300 votes; Whiplash, 300 votes; American Sniper, 200; Selma, 124.

Selma is in last place here, so it drops out. Let's imagine every single one of its 124 voters had Grand Budapest in second.

Round 2: Boyhood, 2,000 votes; Birdman, 1,600 votes; The Imitation Game, 1,000 votes; The Theory of Everything, 600 votes; The Grand Budapest Hotel, 424 votes; Whiplash, 300 votes; American Sniper, 200.

Now, American Sniper drops out. Let's imagine its votes are evenly divided between Imitation Game and Theory of Everything (the two films most likely to benefit from garnering lower-place votes on ballots).

Round 3: Boyhood, 2,000 votes; Birdman, 1,600 votes; The Imitation Game, 1,100 votes; The Theory of Everything, 700 votes; The Grand Budapest Hotel, 424 votes; Whiplash, 300 votes.

Out goes Whiplash. We'll toss all 300 of its votes to Imitation Game.

Round 4: Boyhood, 2,000 votes; Birdman, 1,600 votes; The Imitation Game, 1,400 votes; The Theory of Everything, 700 votes; The Grand Budapest Hotel, 424 votes.

And so on. Imitation Game keeps gaining, because we're assuming its support has a lot of breadth, but not a lot of passion. It's very easy to play this scenario out from here and have it ultimately overtake Birdman and Boyhood. The Imitation Game is not my prediction for what will ultimately win Sunday, but I would not be surprised in the slightest if it did. The longer it — or Theory of Everything — can hang in for the count, the more likely they are to garner lower-placement votes and improve their chances.

The important thing is that this lengthy, drawn-out process tends to reward mushier films that are in second or third place on many people's ballots, not divisive films that are maybe in first on some and dead last on others. (This will come up when it comes to nominations too.)

Remember: Instant runoff voting is often held up as a way Al Gore could have won in 2000, not a way Ralph Nader could have secretly proved triumphant. It still tends to benefit consensus candidates in a way the Oscars' prior system of a straight popular vote didn't.

And the voting rules also could point to why movies about movies — like Birdman — seem to gain unique benefit from the new system. After all, Hollywood tends to look kindly upon itself, and whatever shame may have existed in the past about choosing a movie about movies as your one and only vote is quite likely eased by getting to rank that movie second or third — which is precisely where it's most dangerous.

Of course, to win, you have to be nominated. And while the nominations process is better than the winner-selecting process, it, too, is pretty messed up.

Some voters' ballots for Best Picture nominations are counted twice

Here's the best thing about the nominations process: A movie needs only grab a little over 5 percent of the voting body to crack the Best Picture lineup. That means smaller movies with cult-like fanbases can get in with just over 300 votes. (This also arguably hurts some of these movies — these artier choices often have a smaller pool of voters to choose from in the first place.)

Of course, it's also hard for those films to win, as we've shown above. "A little over 300 votes" is going to get you nowhere in a "winner takes all" race. But still, as my colleague Alex Abad-Santos has pointed out, there's more of a monetary benefit from being nominated than there is from being a winner, so these nominees will likely take what they can get.

Let's dig more into the nominations process.

The Best Picture lineup has at least five final nominees and no more than 10. Votes are tallied by accountants over two rounds. Up to 10 films that have garnered at least 5 percent of the vote are nominated. Except, as with all things at the Oscars, it's slightly more complicated than that.

Let's examine how the Oscars have modified instant runoff voting for the nominations process.

1) Academy members vote for nominees

To qualify for the Oscar ballot, a film must have played for a week in Los Angeles County in the calendar year of 2014, and that describes a lot of films (323, to be precise). Voters are asked to vote for at least one and up to 10 Best Picture candidates, ranked. (For simplicity's sake, we're going to assume all 6,124 Academy members ranked at least a few choices.)

2) The first round of counting and the first threshold

The accountants separate the ballots by first place votes. Every film that crosses a certain vote threshold is added to the Best Picture lineup.

That threshold is the total number of voters (in our example, 6,124) divided by the total number of potential nominees plus one (11). That's a little over 556, which is rounded up to 557. (This works out such that if 10 films get 557 votes, the 11th film won't make the list.)

Things could stop after the first round if 10 films make it in, but that's unlikely.

3) The surplus rule

Now, the accountants turn to the so-called "surplus rule."

The "surplus rule" means that any voters who supported a film that crossed the threshold plus 10 percent effectively get their ballots counted twice. In our example, this number is 613 or more (557 + 56 = 613). Every voter who voted for a film that triggered the surplus rule sees their ballot counted a second time for their second-place choices. I'll say that again: Some voters' ballots are counted twice.

4) The 1 percent rule

In addition, the accountants remove any ballots whose first-place choices are on less than 1 percent of ballots. This is the standard instant runoff scenario, where voters' first-place choices failed to garner the requisite amount of support and so their second-place choices are now counted, instead.

5) The second round of counting

The votes get counted up again. This time, the threshold is lower. Any film with 5 percent of the votes or more makes the list — up to 10 films total. The threshold number thus drops from 557 (a little over 9 percent) at the first round to 307 (slightly over 5 percent).

6) The unlikely third round of counting

If fewer than five films were in the Best Picture lineup at the end of this round, things could proceed to a third round, but this seems staggeringly unlikely.

How the nomination process works


Selma is likely the kind of film that needed the second round of voting to make the Best Picture lineup. (Paramount Pictures)

Let's say Boyhood has received 1,000 first-place votes, Birdman 900, The Imitation Game 800, and The Grand Budapest Hotel 590. These four films are all past the 557 vote threshold and have landed in the Best Picture lineup.

As round two of counting begins, the ballots for all first-place choices receiving less than 1 percent of the vote total are reallocated to the voters' second-place choices. Then, the surplus rule kicks into effect, tossing all of the Boyhood, Birdman, and Imitation ballots back into play. Grand Budapest falls 23 votes short of 613. Its ballots remain out of the counting.

After our reallocation, let's imagine The Theory of Everything now hits 600 votes, while American Sniper gets to 450 votes, with Whiplash and Selma scoring around 330 votes. The accountants check the first-place choices to see which additional films cross the 5 percent threshold. All four films do — and join the others for the final Best Picture lineup.

Differences with other categories

Meanwhile, in the other categories, the same system applies except it goes on until five nominees (or three nominees, for some) are arrived at, and the surplus rule is triggered by something receiving the threshold number plus 20 percent.

Unlike Best Picture, these nominations are only voted on by members of that particular Academy branch as well, say the acting branch or the designers' branch. (The threshold number is often perilously low for these branches — for the designers, it's just 19, according to The Wrap.)

When it comes time for voters to choose Oscar winners in early February, all categories are voted on by everyone. Thus, only experienced directors of photography choose the Oscars' nominees for Best Cinematography, but the entire voting body chooses the actual winner you see accept the prize at the ceremony.

The nominations process has benefits

Guardians of the Galaxy

Blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy could be hurt by this nominations process. (Marvel Studios)

As mentioned, it allows the Oscars to let some offbeat choices slip into the lineup. If you can get 307 people to rank you in first place, you're in the Best Picture race. And once you consider that it's almost certain that not every one of the Academy's members votes, the task becomes even easier. Thus, a movie with a passionate cult, like The Tree of Life or Amour, can make it into the Best Picture lineup.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Best Picture nominees lineup is ultimately just a bunch of first-place choices — and likely a handful of second-place choices — from Academy members.

And although this system benefits more cult-like films, it has the inverse effect of punishing movies that people are less likely to rank in their top two slots — like, say, blockbusters. You can imagine a scenario in which every single Academy member ranked, say, Guardians of the Galaxy in third place on their ballots for nominations, meaning it would be highly unlikely to receive a single vote for Best Picture, despite being arguably one of the three most popular films of the year.

That system also makes it far easier to have years, like this one, when the divisive films fall by the wayside, in favor of choices more likely to land in second place on various ballots, like the largely bland and inoffensive Theory of Everything.

In essence, at every step of the Oscars process, the voting skews results toward bland consensus, rather than smaller, nervier choices. That hasn't yet completely overrun the nominations process, but it sure seems to be turning out bland winners.