Free Film School #135: The Voting Process

Not so long ago (2009 to be exact), the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (or AMPAS, or merely The Academy) decided to alter the Academy Awards in one dramatic fashion: They decided to expand the Best Picture category from a mere five nominees to upwards of ten. This was sparked directly by the success of Christopher Nolan’s action film The Dark Knight, which was one of the highest-grossing films of 2008, was beloved by millions, and was critically lauded pretty much across the board. It was also not given a Best Picture nomination, causing an uproar. Why does The Academy – claiming to be looking for the best film of the year – constantly ignore crowd-pleasers like The Dark Knight?

One can easily snuff and say something like “Because films like The Dark Knight just aren’t as good as films like The Wrestler.” And an argument could be made on that point. But the fact remains that The Academy – throughout its history – has famously eschewed mainstream blockbusters over comparatively smaller, more thoughtful movies.

So The Academy decided to expand its Best Picture category to include up to ten nominees for the express purpose of including mainstream blockbusters and crowd-pleasing action films. But even then, The Academy has not been so stringent. Aside from Inception, District 9, Toy Story 3, Avatar, and perhaps Gravity, none of the Best Picture nominees have been enormous summertime-type hits since. The lack of “mainstream” films in the Best Picture category have left some people wondering if they’re not even eligible. How do they pick those movies anyway? How is it some films get nominated for Best Picture and others don’t? Who’s voting? How do they choose?

This is CraveOnline‘s Free Film School, and I’m here to explain.

Eligibility is actually a sticky process for The Academy. Their rules are very strict, and they change from year to year, although the general definition of an eligible film is pretty broad: In short, an eligible film has to be over 40 minutes in length (to be a full-length feature and not a short film). It has to be projected on 35mm film, 70mm film, or in 24- or 48-fps digital projection of a certain quality. It’s audio tracks also have to be of a certain quality. It has to run in a theater in Los Angeles County for at least one week, and those screenings have to be open to the public. The filmmakers also have to submit a full and accurate list of credits to The Academy.

There are also rules concerning deadlines, submissions, and all kinds of persnickety red tape. If you want a rundown on the complete list, you can visit the Academy’s Rules & Eligibility Page. It’s a bit tedious a read, but I encourage you to give it a once-over, just so you can familiarize yourself with Academy thinking.

As for the rules explaining the expanded number of nominees, it is worded thus: The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than ten nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than five percent of the total votes cast.

So Academy members are technically allowed to vote for any film they want as Best Picture category. And if a film gets less than 5% of the total votes, then it is not a nominee. This means that certain people may have voted for, say, The Avengers to get a Best Picture nomination, but less than 5% of voters did.

Every year, The Academy mails out a “Reminders List,” listing every single feature film that is eligible for an Academy Award in any category. If a film isn’t on the Reminders List (because a studio forgot to fill out the proper paperwork, say), then it is not eligible for voting. Academy members then vote by a secret ballot. No one is allowed to write in a candidate. If you do not select an eligible film from the Reminders List, then your vote will be thrown away. The Reminders list is also different for different categories, and animated films, documentaries, foreign language films, and shorts don’t have to appear on it.

Here’s the tricky rule that no one understands: Rule Five, Section Five: In the nominations voting, the marking and tabulation of all ballots shall be according to the preferential, weighted average, or re-weighted range voting system.

What the heck is re-weighted range voting? Let me explain that too. Here’s how it works: If a film is voted for as #1, it gets a certain number of points. If it’s voted for many, many times at less than #1, its point level is divided and reduced based on the score that the voters give it. It’s more thoroughly explained by the range voting website. Suffice to say, the voting for Best Picture is not a one-to-one vote process, and voters don’t pick a single winner. It’s based more a ranking aggregate. Voters get to rank the films up for Best Picture, and the scoring is based on its ranking. For example, a #1 vote would earn the film, say, 9 points. A #9 vote would earn it one point. Then, through some tricky math, a second “round” of voting is held, and the point values are divided by the total number of votes. This means if all the voters pick Gravity as the second or third best film of the year, half of them choose 12 Years a Slave as number one, and the other half pick The Wolf of Wall Street as number one, Gravity will still win out for Best Picture. Or something. Is that clear? [Edit] The above is not entirely accurate, and I apologize to my students. Even the best professors are fallible. There is a comment below that takes me to task, and explains things more clearly. 

I wish The Academy would release the full results after the winners were announced. I’d love to see how close a race it was. I’d love to see who voted what first, third, and so on. I think it would get more people watching the telecast if they could see a better diagram of the battle. Perhaps the Best Picture wasn’t a runaway. Maybe it was really, really close. Maybe the Best Picture received no “#1” votes.

Got a film you want to submit for Academy qualification? You actually don’t need a huge budget. You just need to know the rather strict rules, and fill out all the paperwork on time. Go here to start the process!

But all of these rules leads back to the bigger question: Why so much homogeneity at the Oscars? Why are the same kinds of films nominated over and over? Why do single films get nominated multiple times in multiple categories. Indeed, the 2014 nominees have seen less variety across the board than any other year in Academy history. Sadly, I can’t point to rules and regulations in this regard, and cannot easily answer those questions. The actual voting is heavily political, and much of it is based on advertising, schmoozing, and constant reminders from the studios; some say the only reason Crash won Best Picture in 2006 because of the ubiquity of screener DVDs the producers constantly mailed to Academy voters. That’s why so many films released at the end of the year end up being nominated for Oscars. Those are the films voters remember. They’re still playing! Why no action films? Perhaps the reason is as simple as genre prejudice.

I hope this clears things up a little.

Homework for the Week:

Imagine making a film on a small budget, but you want it to be eligible for an Academy Award. Look over the rules. How would you make the film differently? Would the budget change? Do you think all films have an equal chance of winning? Why do certain types of films get Academy Award nominations, and others don’t?

Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.