Saturday, February 23, 2013

How the Best Picture Oscar is determined

Getting you ready for the Oscars tomorrow night. As always, I will be reviewing them Monday morning. But for today…

Ever wonder how the Motion Picture Academy determines “Best Picture?” For the last four years they’ve gone to what they call a Preferential Ballot. How does this work and how can Florida sabotage it?

Voters rate the Best Picture nominees in order of preference. So it might be ARGO – 1, LINCOLN – 2, SILVER LINING PLAYBOOK – 3, etc. No write-in votes. You can’t slip BATTLESHIP in there.

Voting ended Tuesday. Now the Academy or Price-Waterhouse or hired day laborers – whoever gets the assignment – collects all the ballots and puts them in nine piles based on everyone’s number one choice. The stack with the fewest number one votes is eliminated and each of its ballots get moved to the pile of their second choice. Again, the smallest stack is eliminated and those voters’ ballots go to their third choice.

This is repeated until one stack has over 50% of the votes.  That's the winner.   So in a runaway year a movie could win on the first round. But if it’s close – like this year figures to be – it could go down to the seventh or eighth round. In a sense, more important than how many voters select your movie as their top pick is how many place it third instead of sixth?

Is this a fair system? I don’t know. I suspect Nate Silver would have a bitch of a time making an accurate prediction. Karl Rove would have BATTLESHIP winning according to his polling.   But what this system does is encourage members to vote honestly. Don’t not vote for your favorite simply because it’s not a frontrunner. The movies that don’t win have a big impact on the one that does.

And if LINCOLN loses Spielberg will demand a new system next year.


Bart Smith said...

Nate Silver actually just made his Oscar predictions yesterday. He bases it primarily on the precursor awards and really doesn't factor in the preferential ballot system.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, this style of voting is called Single Transferable Vote, and is widely used around the world in countries with systems of proportional representation (which outside the US means that the elected body proportionately reflects the party support of the populace; within the US it's about population and geography). Wikipedia has a list of the countries that use it - I first came across it in Ireland, where it's been used for many decades.

I can see the reasoning why they use it for Best Picture: it makes sure that the winner has widespread support even if it wasn't everyone's first choice, and it avoids the thing of five movies all scoring very close to each other, and one that 78% of the voters *hated* getting the nod with 22% of the vote. For that reason, the system likely leads to less controversial choices.


Christodoulos said...

It's the voting system used in science fiction fandom for the Hugo Awards, or a similar one (I'm not an expert). Check out the link below:

Michael said...

Did you see this article where an anonymous director talks thru how he filled out his ballet? He only listed 2 choices for best picture and left the rest of the slots blank.
He also admits voting in Best Animated Short category despite not seeing any of the nominees.

Roger Owen Green said...

It's also called Instant Runoff Voting. It's fairer in that, in a nine-field list, someone who might be #1 on 12% of the ballots, but is despised by the other 88% won't win. It's a consensus vote, so those films with lots of #2s and #3s will most likely win. Reason enough to pick Argo, which, if it isn't most people's #1 is likely a lot of people's #2 or #3 choice.

Roger Owen Green said...

Check out

Howard Hoffman said...

Slight correction in your last sentence. Between the words "demand" and "a" should be the words "and get."

G'night, everbuddy.

Mary Stella said...

For the last four years they’ve gone to what they call a Preferential Ballot. How does this work and how can Florida sabotage it?

If there's a way, Florida will find it. If there isn't, SoFlorida will create it.

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

The saddest thing to me about Oscar voting is that lots of the voters acknowledge they don't have time to watch all the nominees. And some even go so far as to admit they just vote for their friends.

This means that, for example, while the Academy Cinematographers will pick the nominees, the Academy as a whole will vote on who they thought was the best -- whether they've actually seen the movies in question or not.

Say what you want about Terrence Malick's TREE OF LIFE, but it was easily the most beautiful film made that year, and possibly of the past 10 years. My mouth involuntarily fell open at how stunning it looked. One can only guess how long they waited to make sure each shot looked as "perfect" as possible.

The ASC happily awarded Emmanuel Lubezki their annual award for this incredibly work. The Academy, on the other hand, probably didn't get around to watching Tree of Life (it's supposed to be a bit weird isn't it?), and ended up awarding best Cinematography to HUGO.

Now Hugo wasn't bad looking, by any means, but it wasn't anywhere the near the once-in-a-career visuals that Lubezki worked his ass off to capture for Tree of Life.

I kind of wish that only professionals in their given fields could vote in their particular category, but I suppose that would just make them the ACS, DGA, WGA, etc. etc. awards combined.

At the very least I wish only people who had actually watched the movies in question got to vote -- but the logistics of enforcing that would be very difficult indeed.

Ah, well. Despite all this, I do enjoy watching the Oscars each year... It's the only awards ceremony I actually will watch without fail. Although this promises to be quite a dull one in terms of "winners". All the obvious Oscar contenders are present and correct, with no real surprises.

I hope they at least say, "And the Oscar goes to..." instead of, "And the winner is..." this year. It's pretty absurd to suggest that getting an Oscar nomination makes you a "loser".

Anonymous said...

Sinced you love Natalie Wood, you should definitely go to -

Wendy in Indianapolis said...

Hi Ken:
Double Friday question. First, I recently re-watched Cheers from beginning to end. (Have a much greater appreciation now at age 44 than when I spent every Thursday night at a nearby fraternity's "Cheers and Beers" event in the late 80's, complete with homemade bleachers for all of us to watch every episode.) Who is the extra I saw in so many Cheers episodes, whom I've never seen you mention in this blog? She is an older woman, attractive, blond, maybe in her 60's? I never saw her actually say a line. Then I noticed her over Frasier's shoulder in Cafe Nervosa in the opening scene of Frasier's "Roz and the Schnoz." Second, what is the benefit of having a character who is never shown, such as Norm's wife Vera or Niles's wife Maris? I can understand the suspense, but why have a character like that who is NEVER unveiled? the blog.

chuckcd said...

Oh, so they use the same system as the Gold Glove Awards?
No wonder they are so screwed up.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Isn't this kind of voting the reason -- or one reason -- nobody was elected to Cooperstown this year?

Edward Copeland said...

Of course, some members pass off their ballots to others: spouses, assistants, secretaries, friends, etc., so the "jury of their peers" aspect isn't entirely true. What's nuts is the vitriol that the Internet has injected into the game. Everyone loses perspective. No one accepts that the Oscars are a glorified opinion poll and with all the campaigning, people lose their minds. I used to care about who wins -- when I was a teen. Thankfully, there wasn't a Web then so my outrage didn't get broadcast beyond my immediate family and friends. This year was particularly insane. People who thought Argo was a really good movie when it came out decided that it was one of the worst movies ever made once it started winning everything. Admittedly, I was in an unusual situation since they managed to nominate 8 out of 9 movies for best picture that I thought were good or better. That never happens. I did my best to try to calm people down, but most people don't understand that a critic's review is one person's subjective opinion: It is neither right nor wrong. Trying to sell the idea that it's the same with the plurality of 4,000 or so subjective opinions just fries their brains because they want to believe that the Oscars really do stand for the best in film when there is no way to objectively determine best and worst in artistic endeavors, especially in the short term.

Isaac Lin said...

Regarding Cooperstown: actually, a voting system such as Single Transferable Vote would ensure that someone gets elected, since you keep eliminating the lowest candidate until someone is picked.

As you sort of alluded to, Ken, the weakness of transferring the votes from the lowest ranked choice on upwards is that the winner is picked based on the second (third, etc.) choices of those who voted for the eliminated candidates, which ignores the preferences of the rest of the voters. A better approach would be to use the relative rankings from all the ballots to tally up how each candidate does in a head-to-head contest against all other candidates (see for more information).

Baylink said...

Wow. *Four different people* beat me to the Condorcet answer.

You've got some really well read commenters here, Ken. :-)

Myself, though, for political plebiscites, I'm fonder of the Schulze method, or possibly Majority Judgement/Continuous Majority Judgement, which I haven't evaluated as closely yet.

Mac said...

Regarding the voting system: Arrow won the Nobel prize back in '72 for basically proving that it is impossible to create a perfect voting system. Basically - whatever method you use there is guaranteed to be able to construct a scenario where the 'wrong' person won.

(Pedants may point out that I'm oversimplifying his mathematical proof a bit - but 'A perfect voting system is impossible' is a reasonable summary.)

With preferential voting (or 'Instant Runoff' or whatever bizarre rename people give it), it is possible to construct a scenario where someone can lose the election because they became more popular. (Yes, it is a bit contrived - but it is possible)

Before you sneer and point out that your preferred system wouldn't have that method - alas there is no perfect method.

Or, if you find one, you could get a Nobel Prize yourself. You could take Arrow's - since his would now be invalid...