In Praise of the Oscars’ New “Best Picture” Voting Process

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Back in June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the Oscar “Best Picture” field would be increased from five to ten. This change was partially brought about by claims that too many films that had a chance of winning best picture had been cheated by not even being included among the nominees. The Dark Knight and Wall-E were two examples from last year. Traditionally, comedies have also had a difficult time making the list of nominees, a problem that may be alleviated by expanding the list to ten.

While there were obvious benefits to expanding the list to ten, it was clear that there were shortcomings too. The traditional way of selecting best picture had been that each of the 5800 voting members would pick the top film among the nominees and the film with the most votes would win. Conceivably, with ten films up for best picture, a film with slightly more than 10 percent of the vote could win. If two films are front-runners, there is an incentive to vote for one of those two films so your vote “counts”, as opposed to voting purely based on preferences. Having preferential voting based on rankings would help to avoid this problem, among others.

Fortunately, a preferential voting system based on ranking will now be employed. Reuters explains the system:

“The preferential system is designed to measure depth of support, since second- and third-place choices can be just as important as first-place choices.

Under the system, ballots are first separated according to first-place choices. If one film wins a majority among all first-place votes, it’s the winner.

If not, the film with the fewest number of first-place votes is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed according to their second-place rankings. The process continues until one film has picked up a majority of votes.”

This works slightly differently than the NPI method of ranking. We simply add each voting member’s rankings and rank the relevant song/movie/music/etc. based on the lowest aggregate sum. Under this system, a song, for instance, can finish first even if no individual voted for it to place first. While this can occur under the system the Oscars is employing, it is less likely to occur since a premium is put on initial first place votes. This makes sense since the best picture does not result in a ranking. The Academy doesn’t publicize which film places in second or third. The Academy, and consequently the audience, only cares about what finishes first, what actually wins best picture. Given this framework, the new ranking system is appropriate and praiseworthy.

Will we see systematic changes in the type of films that win best picture under the new system? I doubt it. While the new system will more accurately reflect the preference of voters, the fact is that voters have a bias against foreign films, comedies, and shorter films. While it is possible that voters will rank certain types of films second that they would never rank first, there is little reason to expect that their biases would not be reflected in all of their rankings. Despite my doubts, it should be interesting to see if the type of movie that wins best picture differs significantly in the next several years.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t agree with the academy’s move. For years they have avoided the simple category of “Best Comedy”. They could have also had “Best Animated Movie”, in addition to “Best Animation” (very different). Five choices in just about every other awards venue (see Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, Joshees) seems to be enough. Mark my words, yes go ahead mark them like graffiti on a bathroom wall (just not in your home), they will be a year where they will struggle to come up with 10. I have seen years where they struggled to come up with 5. Check through some of these Best Picture nominees over the years and you will go “huh?”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Picture

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  2. […] up in the air. Leave a Comment The 2010 Oscar Nominees were announced today and I seek to defend my previous praise of the expansion of the “Best Picture” category to include ten nominees instead of the usual […]

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  4. […] NPI officially endorses the new Oscar voting policy for the Best Picture award, one of the major downsides of expanding the category to 10 is that it makes it twice as hard to […]

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