Explaining and Analyzing The Confusing Way The Academy Chooses Best Picture

The Academy has a very convoluted way of selecting the Best Picture winner, and it’s all Batman’s fault. Allow me to explain.

When the Academy revealed their Oscar nominations in 2009, they were met with great pushback because Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film The Dark Knight did not receive a Best Picture nomination. This caused the Academy to take action. They decided to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to ten in order to increase the chance of more popular films, like The Dark Knight, being included in the award show. (A few years later they changed it from ten to anything in between five and ten, which is why nowadays there are usually eight or nine films nominated each year.)

The Academy actually used to nominate ten films a year, but switched to five in 1944. When they changed their system again in 2009, they brought back the old way of voting they used when they had ten nominees in the 30s and 40s. This system is called the “preferential ballot,” and is still in use today.

It is a confusing system to some, including some of the actual voters who have admitted that they don’t know how it works, which is always a great thing to hear. Essentially it works like this, every voter ranks all the movies nominated for Best Picture, this year it would be from one to nine. For a film to win, it needs to receive 50% of the first place votes. If no film receives 50%, which is likely with so many nominees, then the film with the least amount of first place votes is eliminated, and that film’s votes go to whichever film was number two on that voter’s ballot. So, using this year’s nominees as an example: Let’s say a voter puts Ford V. Ferrari in their number one spot and 1917 in their number two spot. Then let’s say Ford V. Ferrari gets the lowest number of first place votes out of all nine films, then it would be eliminated, and that voter’s vote would go to 1917. This process continues until one film gets 50% of the first place votes. Like I said, it can be confusing.

Critics of this system like to point out that it makes it so the Best Picture award goes to the least disliked movie, rather than the most beloved or the actual best picture. I tend to agree with them. It is inevitable with this system that the film that ends up winning was ranked 2nd, 3rd, and perhaps even 4th on hundreds of ballots. If you ever find yourself asking the question, “how did the entire Academy think that was the best film of the year” after Best Picture gets announced, the answer is most of them probably didn’t.

So, the question remains, why is this the system the Academy chooses to employ. Ric Robertson, who was the Academy’s COO when the Best Picture category was expanded to ten, and this system was implemented back in 2009, said, “the idea of the preferential ballot is to reflect the wishes of the greatest number of voters. Otherwise you might end up with a movie that, say, 25% of the people love and the rest can’t stand.” I understand this idea. I think the Academy wants to present the Best Picture winner as “the Academy’s choice” and when you can have a movie win with only 25% of the votes, then it doesn’t truly feel like “the Academy’s choice.”

I honestly don’t know if the preferential ballot is the best system or not. The truth about the Academy is they got this award wrong many times when there were five nominees and they’ve gotten it wrong many times now that there are up to ten nominees. So, I’m not sure the voting mechanism is a bigger problem than the voters themselves. I think the fact that this system is so confusing to people who actually vote is a problem that does need to be fixed though. It’s ridiculous that certain members of the Academy don’t know how the rules work for their most important award. Also, there is an argument to be made that they should just go back to five nominees, because there are always a few clear front-runners every year anyway. With up to ten nominees there are bound to be films nominated that we all know have no chance of winning. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this though, I enjoy the idea of celebrating more films and the nominations being capped at ten rather than five allows us to do that.

Ultimately, I feel that the preferential ballot system is flawed in that it tends to award movies that are the most “liked” instead of ones that people have a true passion and love for. With that being said, I understand that, when you have up to ten nominees, it is hard to run a system in which every voter just votes for their Best Picture and the film with the most votes wins. I do want to add that I think the Academy should release the voting numbers each year so we can actually see how the votes were spread out amongst the nominees.

With the Oscar’s now just five days away, my feelings towards the preferential ballot system continue to be mixed. As much as I do enjoy the award show itself and do my best to remain optimistic that the nominees I am rooting for will win, I must say I’m prepared to be let down again. I’ll touch on that more, and share what my Best Picture ballot would look like in posts coming later this week.

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