How does the Oscar nomination and voting process work?

16 February 2010

NOTE: this is a legacy article published in 2010. Much of the information presented is likely now out of date.

While the movie buff in me takes an avid interest in who wins what in the Academy Awards each year, I’ve never given much thought to how a film reaches the winning list, aside from the fact it must be good — or reasonably good — and was favoured by members of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), who preside over the venerable award.

And as it turns out, after doing a little research into the process, garnering an AMPAS member’s favour is the very first thing a film must do, if it is to set itself along the Oscar winning pathway.

Favour, choices, AMPAS branches, and nominations

The nomination process commences when each of the 5,777 members of AMPAS, or the Academy, are asked to select their favourite eligible 1 films — usually five — from the preceding year.

The Academy is split into 15 branches, which represent the various aspects of the film production process, and include actors, directors, writers, producers, and visual effects branches, to name a few.

Branch members are only able to nominate “in-house” however. For instance members of the Writers Branch can only nominate film writers for an award, they cannot, for example, choose actors or directors.

Member numbers can vary across branches, and the Academy as a whole, from year to year, and this can have an effect on the overall process, but more on that shortly.

Preferential voting and magic numbers

The choices made by branch members, which are ranked preferentially from one to five, are sent to accounting and auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who then count the selections — manually — and after much sifting of paper, eventually determine the top five choices — or nominations — in each Oscar category.

To be in the running a film must receive at least one number one ranking from a member, or it is eliminated from the count. PwC go through all the votes, or selections, short-listing the top five number one ranked films in each category.

Taking the Animated Feature Film category as an example, here’s how the nomination selection process might work. This year the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch of the AMPAS has 340 members.

PwC divides this number by 6 2, which equals about 56. To make the grade therefore, a film must secure at least 56 number one votes from members of this branch.

For example 63 members might have selected “Coraline” as their first choice. Another 62 might have chosen “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as their first choice, another 61 “The Princess and the Frog”, 60 “The Secret of Kells”, and finally 57 “Up” 3.

Any other animated features that may have been voted as a top choice by members of the branch are now eliminated, as they did not receive enough votes to make the top five in the category.

It gets complicated — sometimes very complicated — however if five movies do not reach the minimum vote threshold, and this is where the preferential voting system comes into play.

They [the PwC team] then look at the piles still left on the table and get rid of the one with the smallest amount of votes, redistributing them to other piles ranked on the 2nd favourite film on the ballots. If the number 2 choice has already been eliminated then they go to the 3rd choice and so on. Once that’s taken place they count again, if a film hits the magic number it’s taken off the table and is a nominee.

Changes to the number of Best Picture nominations

This year, for the first time since 1943, there are ten movies competing for the Best Picture gong, rather than the usual five, meaning the PwC team would have short-listed the top ten, rather than top five, number one voted films for this category.

The Visual Effects and Make Up categories are the only other exceptions to the five nominations per category rule this year, each sporting three contenders.

Voting and electing the winners

The final voting process is relatively similar to the nomination process.

Once nominations have been finalised, Academy members are sent ballot papers, and again using a preferential voting system, make their selections.

At this stage though, just two people at PwC are involved in counting the votes, and they remain the only ones to know the final results, until the winners are announced on Oscars night.

Controversy in Best Picture decisions

For all its mathematical precision, there is still no guarantee that the best film will be accorded the Best Picture award. 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, a superbly made movie in my opinion, could be considered a case in point.

Despite winning a slew of other film awards, and five Oscar nominations, it nevertheless missed the Best Picture award. It was suggested the Academy shunned the movie in the final round of voting as members were uncomfortable with a gay love story.

After “Brokeback Mountain” won an unprecedented number of precursor awards for best picture — 26 — it entered the Oscars with the most nominations and was considered a shoo-in to win best picture. That is, until the majority of its members — straight, ole, self-absorbed, guy geezers, as legend has it — refused to embrace the gay movie and so they gave their top prize to “Crash.”

That said, “Crash” was still a very good film.

And, to date, no science fiction or animated films, have received a Best Picture award, suggesting the Academy prefers only certain film genres.

Other factors influencing Oscar nominations

While nominations ultimately boil down to the individual tastes of the Academy’s 5,777 members, certain factors may sway their decision.

For example in 2008 sociologists from Harvard University, and the University of California, found female actors appearing in dramas, rather than comedies, were more likely than their contemporaries to score an Oscar nomination.

Academy Award nominations tend to go to performers in dramas, who are female, who have been nominated in the past and who command a high rank in the movie-credit pecking order.

And finally if I were a member of the Academy…

My ten choices — for Best Picture — this year would be:

  • An Education
  • Up
  • The Road
  • Up in the Air
  • Watchmen
  • Star Trek (a long shot, but…)
  • Looking For Eric
  • (500) Days of Summer
  • Beautiful Kate
  • Is Anybody There?

These are not, unfortunately, ranked preferentially (though “An Education” would still be very near the top), plus I’m not 100 per-cent sure that all titles are eligible for this year’s awards.

And just so you know, this year’s Oscar awards take place on Sunday, 7 March, 2010, or Monday afternoon, 8 March, as it will be in this part of the world.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Radio 1 Movies Blog, Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Live Science, Gold Derby.)

  • 1. To qualify for an Oscar nomination, a film must open in the previous calendar year, from midnight of 1 January to midnight at the end of 31 December, in Los Angeles County, California.
  • 2. Dividing the total branch membership by six ensures there will be at least five nominees. If it were divided by five the qualifying vote threshold, or “magic number” may be too high, which could result in only four films making the grade.
  • 3. The numbers I have used here are of course fictitious.

Originally published Tuesday 16 February 2010.


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