Oscar Best Pictures winners

How Is the Oscar Best Picture Winner Chosen Exactly?

The fate of “The Revenant, ” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” is in the hands of a complicated vote-counting system

Oscar ballots were due at PricewaterhouseCoopers by 5 p.m. on Tuesday night.

By Wednesday morning, the accountants had collected the paper ballots that were mailed in, printed out paper copies of the votes that were cast online, and started to count.

In 23 of the categories, it’s easy: Voters are asked to pick one of the nominees, and the nominee with the most votes wins.

But the Best Picture category is different, as readers of TheWrap know well.

Also Read: It's Time for Oscar Voting: Here's How It Works

What system does the Academy use to count the Best Picture ballots?
It’s called the preferential system, or instant runoff voting.

Why preferential?
Because it keeps asking the voters to express a preference: Which of these films do you prefer?

How do voters answer that question?
By ranking all the best picture nominees. This year, that means putting the numbers 1 through 8 next to the names of the eight nominees.

So it must be eight points for your first choice, seven for your second, etc. Right?
Wrong. Your first choice gets one vote. At first, no other movie on your ballot matters.

“At first?” So how does the count begin?
PwC makes eight stacks of ballots, based on the film ranked first on each ballot. If one film is ranked first on more than half the ballots, it’s the winner.

How many votes would that take?
There are 6, 261 eligible voters in the Academy. If they all vote, the magic number will be 3, 131. If 90 percent of them vote, it’d be 2, 818.

Also Read: Oscars Add Almost 140 Voters, But Actors Branch Shrinks Again

How often does one nominee get more than 50 percent of the first-place votes?
I don’t know, because they never tell. My guess would be almost never. And in a tightly competitive year like this one, with three strong frontrunners in “The Revenant, ” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight, ” there’s really no way it will happen.

If you don’t have a winner after the initial count, what happens?
The accountants look at the eight nominees, and see which pile is the smallest. That film is then eliminated from contention.

What happens to the ballots of the people who voted for it?
The preferential system basically says to those voters, Your first choice was eliminated. Out of the seven movies that are still in the running, which do you prefer?

That question can be answered by seeing which film is ranked second on each of those ballots. If, for instance, “Bridge of Spies” is the first film to be eliminated, and a “Bridge of Spies” voter has “Brooklyn” ranked second, that ballot goes into the pile for “Brooklyn.” If “The Revenant” is ranked second, the ballot goes into that pile.

All of the “Bridge of Spies” voters are still casting a vote — but now they’re casting it for the film in second place on their ballot, not the film in first.

(Attention, “Bridge of Spies” fans: The order of elimination in this story is entirely hypothetical. I’m not trying to pick on your movie.)

Also Read: If TheWrap's Jeff Sneider Had an Oscar Ballot: 'Spotlight, ' Tom Hardy, Kate Winslet

But what if a voter just checked the box next to “Bridge of Spies, ” and didn’t rank any of the other nominees?
Then they’ve wasted their vote. That ballot can’t answer the question, Which of these seven movies do you prefer?, so it’s thrown out.

So once all those “Bridge of Spies” ballots are redistributed, what happens?
PwC recounts the votes, to see if any movie has now crossed the 50 percent threshold with the new votes it picked up. If anything did, the count is over and we have a winner.

And if not?
Then they do it again. The film with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the question becomes, Which of these six movies do you prefer?

Let’s say “Brooklyn” is the next movie to be eliminated. PwC will pick up every ballot with “Brooklyn” ranked first, and put it into the pile of whatever movie is ranked second on that ballot.

Also Read: Academy Gets Into the Swag Business With Oscars Beanies and Notebooks

What about that hypothetical ballot that had “Bridge of Spies” ranked first and “Brooklyn” ranked second? That ballot has already been redistributed.
Yes, it has. And now it’ll be redistributed again, with the vote going to whichever movie is ranked next-highest on the ballot.

And what if a “Brooklyn” ballot has “Bridge of Spies, ” which has already been eliminated, ranked second?
Then that vote will also go to the movie ranked third on the ballot. As long as a voter has indicated his or her preference among the movies that are still in the running, the vote will count.

How long can the count go on?
With eight nominees, you can conceivably eliminate six of them before revealing a winner. In every new round, the film with the fewest votes will be eliminated, and its votes will go to the highest-ranked film still in the running on each of its ballots.

Essentially, the system will continue to ask the question: Which of these five movies do you prefer? Which of these four movies do you prefer? Which of these three movies do you prefer? You might get a winner at any stage, or you might have to go all the way down to two movies.

Also Read: Hey, Oscar Nominees: Here's the Secret to Winning Best Picture in a Crazy Year

If it gets down to two movies, isn’t it possible that a voter could have those two movies ranked seventh and eighth on his or her ballot?

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