How Are Best Picture Oscar Winners Selected, Explained

The process of selecting Best Picture winner at the Oscars is not as simple as you think. It was a simple process some eight years back when the winners were selected using a normal balloting i.e. the film that gets the most number of votes among the nominees wins Best Picture. In fact, the winners in all the other categories are still picked using the normal balloting — basically, voters check off their picks and in the end, the nominee with most number of votes in each category wins. But picking a Best Picture winner is a completely different animal all together.

In 2009, the Academy announced a new method of selecting Best Picture winner: preferential balloting or what is also referred to as Instant Runoff Voting. This method was introduced in order to select a more consensus choice as Best Picture winner and also to avoid a scenario where a split of votes between the two top contenders leads to a winner with relatively less support.

So what is this Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) method exactly ?

Let’s try to understand it step by step.

During the process of voting, Academy voters rank the nominated movies in order of preference on their ballot: first, second, third and so on.  The first choices in all the ballots are counted. If any movie manages to receive 50% plus one votes, that movie is declared the winner. If not, the movie in last place — that is the one with the fewest number of first choice ranking — is eliminated, and the second-place choices on those ballots are instead counted as first-place votes. The process of counting first choices is repeated again and if any movie gets 50% plus one vote, that movie wins. If not, the movie with the fewest number of votes is again eliminated, and the process of redistribution happens — if the movie ranked next has been eliminated, then the ballot counts for the movie ranked 3rd, and so forth. This whole process of eliminating movies and redistributing ballots continues until one movie wins by securing 50% plus one votes.

I know it is difficult to understand, especially, if you are not familiar with this process. So, let’s make your life easy and explain this process using an example.

Let’s assume 6000 out of all the Academy members vote this year to select Best Picture winner.

Round 1

During the first round of counting the first-place votes are counted in all the ballots. After first round of counting, let’s assume, the votes distribution looks like this:

The Revenant: 1800 votes
Spotlight: 1700 votes
The Big Short: 800 votes
Room: 600 votes
Mad Max Fury Road: 500 votes
Brooklyn: 400 votes
The Martian: 150 votes
Bridge of Spies: 50 votes

Now, as per rules, since no movie has 50% plus one votes (i.e. 3001 votes), the movie in the last place gets eliminated, and the second-place choices on those ballots are instead counted as first-place votes. So, in our example, Bridge of Spies gets eliminated.

Round 2

Let’s assume, out of 50 ballots that have ‘Bridge of Spies’ at first-place, 25 have ‘Spotlight’ at second-place and 25 have ‘The Big Short’. So, here’s how the field looks like after redistribution (red indicates change after redistribution of votes):

The Revenant: 1800 votes
Spotlight: 1725 votes
The Big Short: 825 votes
Room: 600 votes
Mad Max Fury Road: 500 votes
Brooklyn: 400 votes
The Martian: 150 votes

Still, no movie has 3001 or more votes. So, ‘The Martian’ gets eliminated.

Round 3

Let’s assume, out of 150 ballots that have ‘The Martian’ at first-place, 100 have ‘Spotlight’ at second-place and 50 have ‘Bridge of Spies’. But ‘Bridge of Spies’ is already eliminated. So, the movies placed third in all those 50 ballots are counted as first-place votes. Let’s assume, 25 ballots have ‘The Big Short’ at third-place and 25 have ‘The Revenant’. So, here’s how the field looks like after redistribution:

The Revenant: 1825 votes
Spotlight: 1825 votes
The Big Short: 850 votes
Room: 600 votes
Mad Max Fury Road: 500 votes
Brooklyn: 400 votes

Still, no movie has 3001 or more votes. So, ‘Brooklyn’ gets eliminated.

Round 4

Let’s assume, out of 400 ballots that have ‘Brooklyn’ at first-place, 380 have ‘Spotlight’ at second-place and 20 have ‘The Revenant’. Now, here’s how the field looks like after redistribution:

Spotlight: 2205 votes
The Revenant:
1845 votes
The Big Short: 850 votes
Room: 600 votes
Mad Max Fury Road: 500 votes

Still, no movie has 3001 or more votes. So, ‘Mad Max Fury Road’ gets eliminated. Notice, how ‘Spotlight’ started out as second but has now climbed to top at the end of Round 4. 

Round 5

Let’s assume, out of 500 ballots that have ‘Mad Max Fury Road’ at first-place, 495 have ‘Spotlight’ at second-place and 5 have ‘The Revenant’. Now, here’s how the field looks like after redistribution:

Spotlight: 2700 votes
The Revenant:
1850 votes
The Big Short: 850 votes
Room: 600 votes

Still, no movie has 3001 or more votes. So, ‘Room’ gets eliminated.

Round 6

Let’s assume, out of 600 ballots that have ‘Room’ at first-place, 400 have ‘Spotlight’ at second-place and 200 have ‘The Revenant’. Now, here’s how the field looks like after redistribution:

Spotlight: 3100 votes    **WINNER**
The Revenant:
 2050 votes
The Big Short: 850 votes

So, after six rounds of counting and redistribution, we have a winner at our hands (in case, if no movie still didn’t have the majority number of votes, the process would have gone to the seventh round). Since ‘Spotlight’ has more than 50% plus one votes, it becomes the Best Picture winner.

One could always argue the pros and cons of this method, but overall, generally speaking, this IRV system ensures that a more widely liked movie wins Best Picture. Also, as I wrote in another article, if a movie has passionate support behind it — that is, a lot of first-place votes — as probably ’12 Years a Slave’ had a couple of years ago, it will be difficult for other movies to catch up.  Looking back at previous years, I believe, ‘Argo’ won because it was a widely liked movie — that means, a lot of second-place and third-place votes combined with a significant number of first-place votes. In the above example too, ‘Spotlight’ won in spite of having less number of first place votes because of it had more second and third place votes than ‘The Revenant’.

Hopefully, you all now have a better understanding of the process of selecting Best Picture winner. If you still have questions, drop them below in comments.

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1 comment

  • Lol that’s how the presidential elections take place in India. Trust me it’s not really as complicated as you guys are putting it out to be.