How Oscar Voting Works for Best Picture

Winning ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars is considered to be the most prestigious prize in film. However, over the last decade, the films that have been awarded are considered by some to be, kinda safe. Considering some of the films they were nominated against, seeing the ultimate list of winners can leave some people scratching their heads. There are films that were more popular, more ambitious and, according to some, more important. So how has the Academy ended up awarding so many ‘safe’ films? Let’s begin with what makes a film eligible to be nominated. To qualify, a film must be “feature-length”, which is currently defined by the Academy as over 40 minutes long. It must have a qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days, during which time the film is screened at least three times daily. And at least one of those screenings needs to be between 6 pm and 10 pm each day. Films must also be shown in Los Angeles County unless otherwise noted. And, to prove they meet all of these requirements, each film must submit an Official Screen Credits (OSC) form in early December to prove their film ticked all of these boxes. Next, to the people who nominate and vote for Best Picture. The Academy. To be eligible to vote you need to be an active or lifetime member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To become a member, you must have “achieved distinction in the motion picture arts and sciences”, according to the Academy. There are different divisions of the Academy, organised by discipline. Members can only be a part of one of them. So, if you joined the Academy as an actor, then became a director, you’ll still only be able to be part of the acting division. Each division has different requirements for entry. For instance, producers and directors must have at least two credits. Actors must have three. And other more technical categories, like costumes, take into account the years a candidate has had in the respective field. You can also become a member by being sponsored by two or more existing Academy members, or by being nominated for an Oscar. Otherwise, you can just win an Oscar, after which, you’ll automatically be made a member. Unlike most other categories, which are nominated exclusively by the members within those divisions, Best Picture is nominated by all members of the Academy. Here’s how it works. Each Academy member receives a ballot where they list their top 5 movies, in order of preference – 1 being the highest. After a bunch of movies are proposed, the Academy needs to pick 5 to 10 to be Oscar nominees. To become an official nominee, a film has to be nominated as someone’s first choice on at least one ballot. That film then has to reach the “magic number”, calculated by taking the total number of ballots received for it and dividing them by the number of possible nominees plus one – so, for Best Picture, that’s 11. They then round that figure up to the nearest whole number. If the initial result yields a whole number, 1 is automatically added. Once a film reaches this magic number, it is eligible to be an Oscar nominee To whittle down the list of eligible candidates into the ultimate list of nominees, the Academy uses what’s called preferential balloting. This is where, if someone’s number 1 choice is knocked out because it doesn’t have enough votes to hit the magic number, their number 2 preference is counted. The process is repeated until they have a clear group of 5 to 10 films. While most other categories only use preferential balloting for nominations, the Best Picture category also uses the system to vote for a winner. Once again, all members of the Academy are invited to submit a ballot, listing the nominees in order of their preference. To win, a film needs to get more than half the votes. If no film gets more than half of the No. 1 votes, the nominee with the fewest No. 1 votes is knocked out of the race, and the No. 2 preferences of those ballots are counted. This process repeats, moving down the preferences of the remaining ballots until a film attains more than 50% of the vote. So, what kinds of films benefit most from this system? Well, there are some different ways to look at this. The theory behind preferential balloting is that it awards passionate followings of films. Films with a number of No. 1 or No. 2 votes have a better chance of being selected over films with a lot of No. 4 and No. 5 votes. However, many would argue that the process tends to award films that are safe, uncontroversial, and that people feel indifferent about. And that’s where we must take into account the people who actually vote – the Academy. Over the last decade, the Academy has been called out for being too white, too male and too old. In 2015, after failing to nominate any actors of colour, as well as a lack of a nomination for Ava DuVernay for Best Director, April Reign created a campaign called #OscarsSoWhite. In response, the Academy appointed new governors to its board which approves new members, with the aim of doubling the number of women and minorities in the Academy over the next four years. The Academy’s then-president, Cheryl Boone, also announced new rules dictating who can be considered an active member. The new rules defined active members as those who have worked on at least one motion picture in the ten years prior to voting. If an Academy member has been active during three 10 year terms, that member receives lifetime Oscar voting rights. Any member who has won or been nominated for an Oscar also receives lifetime voting rights. Along with the rule changes, over 700 industry professionals were invited to become members of the Academy. Women and people of colour were among them, including Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Janelle Monaé, according to Mashable. 2017’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight” signalled some positive movement after these initial changes. But, 2019’s winner, “Green Book” certainly felt like a return to the Oscars norm. So, is it the voting method, or the Academy membership that keeps rewarding safe films? Well, it seems to be both. The preferential voting process searches for the broadest consensus among voters. This means that the likelihood of films that are controversial, challenging and groundbreaking getting sweeping support is low. They will most likely have passionate supporters pushing the film to the tops of their ballots. But, if those films don’t have enough support in the first round, they could be knocked out of the race very quickly. Especially if they’re challenging the status quo, of which the Academy membership is mostly made up. Whereas a film that is inoffensive, fits a traditional Oscars format or is about the industry of which all members are a part of, has a good chance of slotting into people’s number 2 or 3 positions, which can be very powerful if their more challenging number 1 picks get knocked out of the race. While arguably the most prestigious film award, the Oscars can’t be relied on to reward the most deserving film each year. And that’s because what’s most deserving, most innovative, most important is different to everyone. There are currently over 8 thousand members of the Academy. That’s a lot of different ideas about what constitutes a “best picture”. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s probably more unity to be found in people’s second and third choices than in people’s first choices. Which is why it’s important to remember, you don’t earn an Oscar, you win one. In many ways, the nomination is the acknowledgement of the quality of a film. It’s recognition from the Academy that your film matters, and is being considered as one of the best of the year. As for which one wins, well, take the word “best” with a grain of salt. And perhaps you’ll save yourself a little heartache next Oscars.

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