On Oscar’s rule change

Posted by · 7:27 pm · August 31st, 2009

OscarsBack on June 29, in response to the Academy’s move to 10 Best Picture nominees, I wrote, “I imagine something will have to be done to address the concern that now one merely needs something like 600 people on board to get a film in the line-up.  How many members do you think these blockbuster films, which keep studios in business, employee?  Block voting will surely thrive.”

Two months later, it seems the Academy has taken steps to address the issue.  Sort of.

As Steve Pond reports, in a nutshell, and in order to steer clear of “mathematical dangers,” as AMPAS executive director Bruce Davis puts it, the Best Picture winner in this new paradigm will be determined by the same preferential voting system which yields the nominees.  Members will be asked to rank the 10 films in order of preference.  The thinking is that this will effectively stifle block voting to bully forth a winner, seeing as it would have only taken roughly 1,000 votes to win the big prize otherwise.  And any awards consultant will tell you those are easy numbers to come by.

That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t address the issue of nominees.  It will still only take 10% plus one (more or less 600 votes, even fewer if you consider the fact that there are a good many voters who don’t participate) choosing a film as the year’s best to get a nomination — numbers that are even easier to come by.  Right?  If I’m being honest, I’m confusing myself further the more I write.  I’ll just offer up Pond’s reduction, after the jump.

Initially, [PricewaterhouseCoopers] will separate the ballots into 10 stacks, based on the top choice on each voter’s ballot. If one nominee has more than 50 percent of the vote (unlikely, but conceivable some years), we have a winner.

But if no film has a majority, then the film ranked first on the fewest number of ballots will be eliminated.  Its ballots will then be redistributed into the remaining piles, based on whichever film is ranked second on those ballots.

If those second-place votes are enough to push one of the other nominees over the 50 percent threshold, the count ends. If not, the smallest of the nine remaining piles is likewise redistributed. Then the smallest of the eight piles, then the smallest of the seven…

Eventually, one film will wind up with more than 50 percent.

The process is designed to discern a true consensus and uncover, in Davis’ words, “the picture that has the most support from the entire membership.”

I like the overall move because it indeed levels the playing field, allowing for the most agreed-upon film to deservedly take the top prize.

Read the rest at The Wrap.

→ 20 Comments Tags: , | Filed in: Daily

20 responses so far

  • 1 8-31-2009 at 8:22 pm

    Dan said...

    I wonder how this would have played out in 2005: Brokeback or Crash?

  • 2 8-31-2009 at 8:44 pm

    leocdcd said...

    It was the same system, but anyway I just can’t understand it. Maybe I need a visual explanation or a translation to my language (but visuals would be better xD)

  • 3 8-31-2009 at 9:29 pm

    Peter Debruge said...

    I’m not sure I follow… So the winner is essentially elected by those most in consensus + those least in consensus? In other words, something the near-majority and almost-total-minority can agree on? What makes anyone think that the second-choice of the group voting for the least popular nominee is somehow reflective of the entire group? This makes no sense to me.

  • 4 8-31-2009 at 10:16 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Good points all around there.

  • 5 8-31-2009 at 11:17 pm

    BJT said...

    There’s nothing essentially wrong with a single transferable vote process, especially when there is a fixed number of possible choices. After all it’s only an extension of the first round of voting to decide the nominees.

    A variation has been used in the Irish Parliamentary elections since 1919, as well as in city elections in Cambridge Mass. (thank you wikipedia). It’s also the counting method of choice at most Student Unions.

    The issue here is whether the members, which lets face it are a very small group of people anyway, will seriously set about ranking 10 films. Or are they likely to vote for their favourite then the one’s their friends like, the film getting the most buzz in the press or worse the first alphabetically?

    Of course ranking all 10 won’t be compulsory., and there’s little point in voting beyond 3-5 unless it’s an extremely close race.

  • 6 8-31-2009 at 11:28 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    They don’t take the ranking of 5 films seriously for the nominations process as it is. There are numerous ballots every year that don’t even go to the trouble of listing five movies. Lots of twos and threes. So no, I don’t think they will take this new responsibility seriously at all.

  • 7 8-31-2009 at 11:43 pm

    Henry said...

    Really? This is their world. These are their friends, their bosses, their lovers. How could there be more than a handful of voters who wouldn’t want to list five movies? It’s not like it takes more than ten minutes to fill out the ballot, right?

    I agree – it’s the sum of the consensus and the anti-consensus. But is the anti-consensus in this case the extreme commercial or extreme un-commercial group? Is there still a way for studios to play the system by asking people to vote their tens and twos strategically en masse? And will elderly Oscar voters understand the new system? Are we headed to a Palm Beach recount?!

  • 8 9-01-2009 at 12:18 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    These changes seem almost pointless in the long run. No matter how many rules and limitations you tack on to the Oscar voting process, awards season marketers and producers will always find a way to skew them to their advantage.

  • 9 9-01-2009 at 12:56 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Such is business.

  • 10 9-01-2009 at 2:57 am

    Manuel L said...

    I think that with this system Brokeback Mountain would have beaten Crash in 2005. Crash must have been the worse nominee in a lot of voters’ minds. It was, and still is, a divisive film. And Brokeback was probably #2 in a lot Munich, Capote and Good Night and Good Luck votes.
    And with 10 nominees, Brokeback would have won easily. I remember that when the nominations came up Crash quickly became the alternative to Brokeback, but with 10 nominees it would have had a hard time beating the frontrunner, with 5 other movies in contention.
    And in 2006, who knows if The Departed would have won Best Picture, it must have been a pretty close vote.

  • 11 9-01-2009 at 3:47 am

    RichardA said...

    well, they basically created a problem for themselves. they should have left it for AFI to do to the top 10 listing.

  • 12 9-01-2009 at 4:25 am

    Loyal said...

    I’m left with more questions that answers. What if all 10 aren’t ranked? What if the ballot is clearly ranked alphabetically?

    What if a film with very little support still manages a nomination and by sheer luck, a convergence of “it was good though not great,” professional nepotism , and other frontrunners being ranked low, ends up with 50% #3s?

    That’s not a Best Picture. That’s a clusterfuck.

    Could a producer or studio sue the AMPAS if they felt their was a voting irregularity?

    It would be career suicide but dumber things have happened.

  • 13 9-01-2009 at 5:37 am

    Glenn said...

    So basically, this is opening the door for the most vanilla nominee to win. Same as always then!

  • 14 9-01-2009 at 6:47 am

    El Rocho said...

    This whole thing just pisses me off.

    Dear Academy:

    Pull the rag out of your ass, please.

  • 15 9-01-2009 at 7:27 am

    Miguel Gallego said...

    I really think they’re doing all this too complicated…

    Why don’t they just do this?:

    Each voter ranks the nominees:

    A #1 means 10 points
    A #2 means 9 points

    And #10 means only 1 point

    Then it’s just adding, and the film that has the highest score wins, that simple. At the end, it’s the same result (a film needs to be high in every list to win), but the process in much easier, IMO

  • 16 9-01-2009 at 7:58 am

    Liz said...

    I completely agree, Miguel. To me, that’s the obvious way to choose a winner.

    The only thing I can think of is that they think it’s too much adding. Doesn’t the current system actually eliminate ballots, ultimately creating less work? Obviously, counting the choices on each ballot would make for a much more fair way of doing things, but maybe they just think it’s too much work.

    Seriously though, they work for PricewaterhouseCoopers. They should be able to handle simple arithmetic.

  • 17 9-01-2009 at 8:21 am

    Miguel Gallego said...

    It may seem a little harder to do, but, by our way, you just have to read once the ballots; and by theirs you have to read them several times until you have a winner…

    And I also think that adding the scores of all that ballots is not big deal, Liz. I bet they are enough people to do it quite quickly right? Besides, I guess they have computes, don’t they? they can easily make an adding program.

  • 18 9-01-2009 at 10:24 am

    Brian said...

    Miguel and Liz,

    From an accounting standpoint, the system you describe would be easier to manipulate. People who have a strong dislike for a film could actually devalue it by placing it at #10. The new system in play this year still only gives each voter one effective vote without the possibility of a voter penalizing a film because s/he dislikes it or has a beef with someone involved with it.

    In terms of voting theory, this new proposal works really well. The only way a movie wins with lots of #3 votes is when those same voters have the least popular choices as their #1 or #2.

    And I’m really surprised at the posters here who are talking about the “anti-consensus” as if having an unpopular opinion somehow makes the voter unworthy of having a voice in the process.

  • 19 9-01-2009 at 12:31 pm

    Liz said...

    Brian, I’m not an accountant (and in fact, am not good with numbers at all), so you’ve clearly got the edge on me here. Just to clarify, though, I think Miguel and I are talking about choosing nominees, while you’re referring to choosing a winner. Is that right, or am I completely confused?

    If you are talking about the nominees, are you saying that placing a film at #10 under mine and Miguel’s system would hurt a film more than leaving it off the ballot entirely? And if a voter doesn’t like a film, why shouldn’t he/she place it at #10? That doesn’t seem like manipulating the system as much to me as it does just stating one’s opinion.

    Like I said, I might be missing something.

  • 20 9-02-2009 at 9:38 am

    Brian said...


    Thanks for the clarification. You are right, I misunderstood.

    As a system for nominations, the 10 point theory is intriguing, but it would definitely lead to an all-populist slate of nominees. Great smaller films wouldn’t have a chance under that system because every voter would essentially be distributing 55 points among ten films. It would be very easy for a great, but lesser-known, film with high ranks from 25% of the voters to be ignored because the other 75% weren’t familiar enough with it to include it at all.

    Interesting to think about though…