Uncovering the secret world of Academy Voting

by Michael Miller, People

Handing out Oscars isn’t always easy — as evidenced by tonight’s Best Picture mixup— but voting for them is even more complicated.

Millions tune in every year for Hollywood’s biggest night, but even the diehard Oscar fans (and probably many industry players) have no idea how the award show‘s selection process works.

That’s at least in part because the voting system that determines who and what gets nominated is a long, complex process involving around 6,000 voting members and hundreds of Oscar hopefuls in 24 categories. In fact, tallying up the votes is so involved, the entire process has been outsourced to the accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers for over 80 years.

From beginning to end, a team of a dozen or so accountants spends seven days — and estimated 1,700 hours — to count the votes. After that (as seen in the photo above), two representatives from PricewaterhouseCoopers deliver two sets of the envelopes, each in its own briefcase, to the ceremony.

The preferential-voting system is complicated and time-consuming, but perhaps the biggest hurdle to expediency lies with the tradition of counting each vote by hand.

Here’s a (simplified) rundown of how it works:

Step 1: Joining the Club

The Academy comprises about 6,000 members and each member belongs to a branch — there’s a director’s branch, actor’s branch, producer’s branch and so on. No member can belong to multiple branches, so Ben Affleck, for instance, cannot be in the acting and directing branch at the same time, even though he has done both jobs.

As for how to become one of the lucky 6,000, it helps to be an active member of the business. Not only must each member have “achieved distinction in the motion picture arts and sciences,” prospective voters must have multiple credits under their belts. Writers, producers and directors need at least two projects to their name, while actors must have roles in at least three films. The technical branches — art directors, costume designers, etc. — are judged by how many years they’ve been active in their branch.

If you don’t fit the above requirements, there are other options to join the club. Two or more active members can sponsor an outsider and ask the academy to make a ruling — or you can simply get nominated for an Oscar. Oscar winners and nominees not already part of the academy get automatic consideration.

Step 2: Becoming Eligible

When it comes to the Academy, not all films are created equal.

Just getting a movie into consideration is no easy task for filmmakers, who must submit an Official Screen Credits (OSC) form in early December to prove the film meets all the requirements. In order to become a nominee, a film must be publicly screened at a commercial theater in Los Angeles county for at least seven straight days. It also must be over 40 minutes in length and must have its premiere screening in a theater, in addition to a litany of other requirements.

Step 3: Casting the Vote

Branches vote within themselves, meaning actors vote for other actors, directors vote for other directors, etc. Voters are asked to list their top five choices in order of preference and are encouraged to “follow their hearts” — the Academy is careful not to penalize voters for uncommon selections. The system also makes sure voting for the same person or film twice does not improve its odds (it actually worsens the chances).

All Academy branches have the opportunity to vote for best picture.

Step 4: Finding the “Magic Number”

Once the votes are cast, the first step for the accountants is finding the “magic number” for each category. The magic number determines when a person or film becomes an official nominee.

The magic number is calculated by taking the total number of ballots received for that category and dividing them by the number of possible nominees plus one, and then rounding it up to the nearest whole number. (If the initial result happens to yield a whole number, then 1 is automatically added.)

For instance, if 602 ballots were received for best actress, and there are five nominees for the category, then the accountants will divide 602 by six (five potential nominees plus one), which equals 100.33. Therefore, the magic number, rounded up, is 101.

In this example, when a candidate for a best actress nominee gets 101 votes, she becomes an official nominee.

The of process tallying up Best Picture votes is slightly different. Because that race can have up to 10 nominees, the accountants will divide the total ballots by 11 (10 potential nominees plus one) to get the magic number.

Step 5: Count ‘Em Up

Next, ballots are piled based on each voter’s first-choice selection. Hopeful nominees must have at least one first-choice vote to be eligible. Once a nominee gets to the magic number based off first-choice selections, he or she is in and those ballots are set aside.

Prospective nominees with the fewest first-place votes are eliminated, and those ballots are then redistributed to the other piles based on those voters’ second-place selections. Then the counters begin a new round. For example, if Emma Stone has 98 votes and gets three more from redistributed ballots, she’s nominated (assuming the magic number is still 101). The rest of Stone’s ballots are then set aside.

Step 6: Rinse and Repeat

The process described in Step 5 is then repeated over and over again. The prospective nominee with the fewest ballots has those ballots redistributed to other piles based on voters’ second choices, third choices, fourth choices and fifth choices as needed. A ballot is voided if it runs out of selections, which is why it’s important voters do not repeat names on their list.

As the process continues and ballots are voided, the magic number will start to drop. For example, if 12 ballots are voided, the new magic number would be 590 divided by 6, or 99.

This continues until five nominees in a particular category reach the most recent magic number, or until there are only 5 nominees left in the running.

The nominees are now all set.

Step 7: Picking a Winner

Choosing an Oscar winner is a much easier process for every category except best picture, which is determined by the same preferential voting system outlined above.

Once the nominations are settled, the entire Academy votes for each category, with every member allowed one vote per category. The nominee with the most votes wins.

The accountants knock out this stage in just three days.

Why It Works (in Theory):

The selection process is designed to favor films with small but passionate followers over films with lots of less passionate fans. For example, a film with a small group of supporters who rated it #1 or #2 will be selected over a film with lots of #4 or #5 votes, because ballots rating the film #4 or #5 will have already been put in another film’s pile.

However, after two back-to-back years in which no actors of color were nominated for an award, the academy decided to reexamine some of its processes.

The Changes:

Following the widespread backlash over the lack of diversity in nominations over the past two years, the Academy’s Board of Governors unanimously voted to take measures to increase diversity.

In a press release, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vowed “to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”

The most significant changes are the new rules on membership. While Academy membership was once a lifelong endeavor, voter membership now will be dependent upon career activity.

“Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade,” according to the Academy’s statement. “In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.”

This rule will begin to apply retroactively to current members beginning next year. The Academy also vowed to add three more governor seats to be be occupied by men or women of color for the standard three-year term, as well as adding more diverse members to its executive and board committees.

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