Sunday, February 20, 2011

The preferential ballot - Rank the Oscar Best Picture nominees

Now that the Academy Awards are one week away, it's a good time to prepare yourself for the big night. It helps to see as many of the films in advance as you can, but it isn't essential. If you want to know more about how it all works, take a look back at the article I wrote previously on the Academy and their awards process. Don't believe everything you read though, since many insiders and even some voters themselves don't understand how it really works.

In a nutshell, Academy is like a private club of accomplished industry professionals. The nominations for the Academy are done by the specific branches, ie. the writers nominate the writing categories, the actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, editors nominate editors, etc. Everyone can nominate Best Picture.

The nominations were done with a preferential ballot, something not everyone realizes -- not even all the voters. It means they aren't nominating five people. A preferential ballot only counts one vote at any given time. Think of it as something like a political leadership convention - you can only support one candidate at a time. As candidates get eliminated, their supporters move to their second choice, then their third, and so one. The Academy's accountants only go down the list on the ballot as people are eliminated from contention.

So people up in a lather about perceived "snubs" (such as Christopher Nolan for directing) are making a number of questionable assumptions. The Academy doesn't snub anyone. They don't vote as a block. As mentioned, only directors nominated for directing. 366 of the Academy's 5,777 members are directors. And there are a number of ways he could have gotten plenty of votes but not nominated.

It's possible, for example, that each of the 366 put Christopher Nolan on their ballot but only on the number 4 or 5 slots. Or he could have gotten the most number one votes but less than the required one-sixth plus one, and then wasn't able to pick up enough votes in the elimination rounds. Another possibility is that he was the number two vote on the ballots of one or two very popular choices, so was out of luck. That would be like being everyone's number two choice behind Obama at the Democratic convention - you're still popular and would get a lot of votes if he got eliminated, but he never got eliminated so you'd get nothing.

Now with the actual Academy Awards, the voting changes somewhat. People are allowed to vote in every category, not just their specialty. The exceptions are Foreign Language Film, Documentary, and the three short film categories which require voters to view all the nominees before they can vote. It's a scandal that all of the categories don't have that requirement, but that's a whole other discussion.

Another difference is that the voting is no longer preferential. Voters just pick their choice for winner in each category. The exception of course is for the Best Picture category. Not only do they have a preferential ballot, but they have ten nominees to rank instead of the usual five.

Many people have shown their confusion and ignorance of how this works. People have been treating it like a weighted ballot, in which all the votes are counted but with more weight given to the higher-ranked films. Last year, I heard that some were simply not filling in the names of rival films they didn't want to win, or ranking them very low. That might work with a weighted ballot, but doesn't do a thing on a preferential ballot.

The difference with the preferential ballot this time is that you aren't selecting five nominees, but rather one winner. So whoever reaches 50% + 1 first becomes the winner. Likely, no one will do that right away, so they eliminate the least popular choice and move to the next favourite choice on those ballots. If they still don't have a winner, they eliminate the next least popular choice and redistribute votes again, and so on until there is a winner.

So let's pretend that we're Academy voters and rank the films in order of preference. Don't worry if you haven't seen all ten films. You can be sure that many Academy voters haven't either. Having said that, they do take their voting seriously, and they all have their reasons for their choices (take a look at this article to see how some members voted and why).

So I'll start things off with my ranking of the ten Best Picture nominees.  Unlike previous years, there are no real duds (such as The Blind Side). I think any of the ten would be acceptable. Indeed, the critical favourite The Social Network is my number ten film but I still think it's a good film. But I think four of them are great films that I included in my top ten list.

I don't think there is such a thing as "best," but my number one choice is the front-runner The King's Speech. It's more than just another fluffy period piece, as some detractors would have you believe. It's a magnificent, smart, stylish, inspirational and powerful film that works on many different levels. I also think that Black Swan, Inception and 127 Hours are brilliant movies of their own kind. Sure, people can find reasons to hate. But could anyone have made them better? I don't think so.

Please feel free to add your own ranking of the films in the comments section below.

My ranking of the 10 Best Picture nominees

1. The King's Speech
2. Black Swan
3. Inception
4. 127 Hours
5. Winter's Bone
6. The Kids Are All Right
7. The Fighter
8. True Grit
9. Toy Story 3
10. The Social Network


  1. 1 Winter's Bone
    2 The King's Speech
    3 The Fighter
    4 Black Swan
    5 Toy Story 3
    6 Inception
    7 The Social Network
    8 127 Hours
    9 True Grit
    10 The Kids are All Right

  2. 1. Black Swan
    2. The King's Speech
    3. Inception
    4. 127 Hours
    6. The Kids are All Right
    7. True Grit
    8. The Social Network
    9. The Fighter
    10. Toy Story 3

  3. 1.) "TOY STORY 3"
    2.) "INCEPTION"
    5.) "THE FIGHTER"
    6.) "BLACK SWAN"
    7.) "TRUE GRIT"
    8.) "WINTER'S BONE"
    9.) "127 HOURS"


  4. 1. The King's Speech
    2. 127 Hours
    3. The Kids Are All Right
    4. The Social Network
    5. Black Swan
    6. Inception

    Didn't see: Winter's Bone, The Fighter, True Grit, Toy Story 3

  5. Hey, no sweat. But as I said above, feel free to add them anyhow by guessing at how you MIGHT enjoy them. That's what some Academy voters do. Most Academy members take voting very seriously, but they can't always see everything they want - especially if they're in the middle of making a movie. You don't have to use all ten spots on a preferential ballot, but you also don't have to rank only films that you've seen.