In all my years of watching and analyzing the Oscars, I never actually knew how the Academy's nomination process works until reading this post from Tom O'Neil. It's eye-opening. O'Neil's comments are bolded.
Believe it or not, it's done by hand.
Well geez, I would hope so. If they always add on a few extra minutes to the already-bloated Oscar broadcast just to recognize the PriceWaterhouseCoopers guys, they had better damn well do some hand-counting in order to earn it.
Accountants sort the nomination ballots into stacks based upon what contenders get ranked first. Let's say that 5,200 people out of the academy's 5,800 members vote for best picture. We'll use that number and category as an example of how the process works, but keep in mind that most other categories are determined by peer group. Thus the acting nominees are decided only by the 1,260 members in that academy branch.
I love that O'Neil's example doesn't include the total membership as Best Picture voters, most likely based on actual fact. So some Academy members don't bother voting for Best Picture. Good lord. Couldn't they at least sell the right on eBay? Like, if some sound effects editor decides he doesn't feel like naming five movies, I would gladly cough up a few bucks for that right. And by few, I mean literally a few. Maybe $10. I'm not THAT obsessed over it.
In order to be nominated, a film needs one-sixth of the votes plus one — that's about 868 out of 5,200 votes. As soon as accountants figure that, say, "Sweeney Todd" reaps that tally, they stop counting and set those ballots aside, decreeing "Sweeney" a best pic nominee. The remaining ballots with "Sweeney" on top get distributed to other stacks based upon their second-ranked choices.
If no other movie has enough number-one votes or those number twos once the stray "Sweeney" ballots are re-distributed, then accountants turn to the movies with the fewest votes and redistribute those ballots based upon number-two votes.
Over and over they repeat the process, working from the smallest stacks to the largest, until a film has the magic 868 votes. Then counting for that film stops, the stack is set aside and the remaining ballots in that stack get re-distributed, too, based on the film with the highest next ranking. Over all, about a dozen rounds of redistribution occur before the five nominees are settled.
I don't like this process for a number of reasons, but first of all, it puts a lot of emphasis on random chance. Say, for instance, that 868 people vote Frost/Nixon as their #1 choice. So that movie gets in and then the #2 choice on any remaining Frost/Nixon ballots gets those #1 votes. But, say by random chance, those first 868 Frost/Nixon ballots all had Milk as their #2 choice. Then, by random chance, all of the remaining Frost/Nixon ballots have Slumdog Millionaire as the #2 choice. That's a lot of Milk ballots that wouldn't be counted simply because the accountants happened to grab a certain batch of envelopes first. The Academy doesn't release voting information (i.e. how many votes a nominee received), but I'm willing to bet that some years, it's pretty close for that fifth spot. So it's very likely that there's been at least one year in Oscar history when a movie has been shut out of the Best Picture race simply because a PWC accountant reached for the pile of envelopes on his right rather than the pile on his left.
The way I (and, I would bet, most people) presumed the nominating process worked was that the voters just put five movies in their 'best picture' category and then the accountants counted up the number of times those movies appeared. The five highest totals were the five nominees.
This simplistic way seems to make a lot more sense than this method. First of all, I hate ranked ballots in general for any kind of voting process. It makes the incorrect assumption that people put a lot of thought into their picks past their first or even their second choice. Which of these scenarios is more likely?
Voter A: "All right, I've been keeping track of every movie I've watched this year and rating them as I've gone along. My top choice is better than my second choice, which is better than my third choice, and so forth. Boy, am I ever well-prepared for this. I make a list like a new-age Kyle Wasko!"
Voter B: "Oh yeah, my favourite movie this year was Movie X, no question about it. That's definitely my number one. What's next? Um....gee, I dunno. Maybe Movie Y, that was okay. And Movie Z, my buddy did the sound effects editing for that one. Let's ask my kids about the other two slots."
You'll probably see a lot more Voter B's than you will Voter A's. It's just human nature. You'd also see a lot of strategic voting, whereas a voter might really love Movie X and want it to get it on the ballot for sure, which means he'll put Movie X as his #1 and then stick in the likes of Four Christmases, Death Race, The Happening and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II just to keep any other potential nomination favourites from getting a vote. Also, what's the purpose of having a ranked ballot when the nominations themselves aren't ranked in anything but alphabetical order? As I mentioned, the Academy doesn't release voting totals, and it's not like they say, "No Country For Old Men got the most votes, so it's the #1 Nominee For Best Picture." What's the point of having ranked voting if the nominees are presented equally?
It's similar to an old Archie Comics story I read when I was a kid. Archie, Reggie, Chuck and Moose were all judges for a beauty contest that featured Veronica, Betty, Nancy, Midge and Big Ethel, and the voting process was run by a weighted ballot. (By the way, don't ask me how the hell these judges were selected or why it took a four-man panel to decide a five-woman competition. Archie Comics are not known for their realism --- these kids have attended roughly 574619 proms in the last fifty years.) Each guy picked his girl as the #1, but then in order to cut off any other competition, picked Ethel as his #2. Since Ethel was the consensus #2 pick from all four judges and none of the other girls got more than a single #1 vote, then ugly ol' Big Ethel was the winner. I presume it was a similar kind of logic that sees garbage like Munich, Beautiful Mind and Erin Brockovich get nominated for Best Picture.
This voting process benefits films with a passionate following. It doesn't matter if a movie is absent from the vast majority of ballots. If it nabs one-sixth of the votes plus one, it's in. That's how movies like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Full Monty" got nominated in the past. Those highly commercial, feel-good films were probably snubbed by most academy members, who tend to be snobs, and they probably wouldn't have been nominated if the Oscars used a weighted ballot, but they had enough rabid devotees to survive preferential voting.
It's for this reason that I'm 98 percent certain that my personal favourite movie of the year, The Dark Knight, gets nominated for Best Picture. It's hard to believe that the second-highest grossing film of all-time, a critical darling (the Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer is admittedly a bit unscientific, but TDK has one of the best's ratings at 94% positive reviews) and a film that's still very much in the public zeitgeist almost six months after its release won't get a mere 16.6 percent of the ballot. TDK is one of the few movies released this year that people seem to be really passionate about, and as O'Neil points out, that's really the key factor. Voters may admire a movie like Frost/Nixon --- a film I personally enjoyed a lot --- but I'm not sure it's the kind of movie that really fires people up enough to stick it in their first or second position on their ballot. Then again, who knows, Ron Howard has a lot of buddies in Hollywood. That might get enough Big Ethel votes to get into the top five.
Voter B: "Oh yeah, Ronnie Howard! I love that guy! He did a great narrating job on Arrested Development! Frost/Nixon it is!"