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Oscars 2016: Re-Evaluating the Preferential Ballot, Does it Work?

Take a good, long look at that Tweet. Those proportions are correct. Scott Feinberg is comparing Donald Trump’s win to The Revenant’s win and indeed, there is no way Trump could win on a preferential ballot. He’s way too divisive and many people hate him, even if the largest slice of Republicans love him.

A great many people, including awards pundits, will walk away from Oscars 2016 wondering just how it was Spotlight won Best Picture with only one other Oscar, while the presumed frontrunner, The Revenant, did not. Indeed, it is unusual for a film to win Best Director and Best Actor and then not win Best Picture. The public perception, and the perception of many in the know, was that it could not lose. It was too big to fail. It was too big to ignore. It was a bold, brave reach that paid off. Why wouldn’t Hollywood want to recognize that? The reason is simple: to create a great movie you have to be at least somewhat divisive. To create a very good movie that more people overall like you can’t be divisive at all.


The only film that has challenged the “generally well liked, not hated” rule for the preferential ballot is Birdman. And indeed, last year I thought that film was too divisive to win. It was as bold a reach as any I’ve seen win since the preferential ballot was implemented in 2009. A film’s divisiveness is easy to gauge by how many negatives it gets on Rotten Tomatoes (positives are useless because they include mixed reviews). Birdman still has the most negatives of any film that has won since.

The Hurt Locker-6
The King’s Speech-14
12 years a Slave-12

The reason many of us thought the preferential ballot might produce a victory for The Big Short over Spotlight was witnessing how the Birdman factor overcame Boyhood — Birdman was slightly more divisive, more of a “bold reach” than Boyhood was. That “ambition factor” proved less important this year but the hurdle of the divisive nature of a film was proven right. A movie like The Revenant, with a whopping 50+ negatives on Rotten Tomatoes could have only won on a plurality ballot, like Crash or A Beautiful Mind or any film that was slightly more divisive overall but one that represented such a bold reach voters surged to award it. It could have never happened with a preferential ballot. It was just not possible.

So why did the PGA award The Big Short while Oscar went for Spotlight? It may have been a matter of timing and the other movies vying for attention. For instance, there were several other “bold reach” movies at the PGA — Straight Outta Compton, Ex Machina and Sicario — more than there were at the Oscars. The initial set of nominee choices at the Oscars absolutely already reflect the tendency of that group toward non-divisive films. Part of the reason being that voters at the PGA have the luxury of ten choices for Best Picture on the nominations ballot, where Academy members restrict themselves to five. With only five openings to fill, you tend to get a more purified, pre-distilled selection than a more diverse selection. Thus, those who chose those three movies above might have put The Big Short higher, since it’s more of a bold reach than Spotlight. Movies like The Martian also had a much better chance to win with the PGA than it did once it hit the Oscar voters. By then, its enthusiasm had diminished because Ridley Scott did not get a Best Director nomination (he’s not Ben Affleck, after all).

The other reason, the better reason, is that by the time the Oscars rolled around, voters knew they had three choices and three choices only for the win — when compared to The Revenant or The Big Short, the majority of people are going to prefer Spotlight because it appeals more broadly across the board. It is less divisive. When Facebook friends ranked these three films, Spotlight consistently came out the winner — because you can sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it, if not love it. Many of those same people would be confused by The Big Short or irritated by The Revenant.

The publicity team behind Spotlight had done a really good job changing what was first seen as “All the President’s Men Redux” into a movie about the victims of child abuse. They worked hard to change the message and in so doing gave Spotlight the thing it lacked heading in: urgency to vote for it. With its neutral colors and neutral sets and mostly uniformly good but not flashy performances, Spotlight had worked hard to make sure its story was more important than any of its working parts. It still seemed like a film about journalists tracking down a story until suddenly it didn’t

Now that the smoke has cleared, we are left with two questions. 1) Would Spotlight have won without the preferential ballot? I don’t think so. I think The Revenant would have, without question. I don’t think they would have given it Best Actor and Best Director and not Best Picture. But there was just no way The Revenant could survive once all the ballots began to be redistributed. 2) Is the preferential ballot the best way to find the best film of the year? Would Avatar have been a better choice for Best Picture and might it have won on a plurality ballot? Would The Departed still have won on a preferential ballot in that very close year or would Little Miss Sunshine have won instead (I’m guessing the latter would have). We have to ask ourselves whether or not after 7 years of this whether it’s working or whether it isn’t working.

If more than five films are to be nominated, the preferential ballot must be used. Otherwise Best Picture may end up being awarded to a film with as little as 10% + 1 of voter support. Even if Academy returns to a consistent Best Picture slate of ten nominees (I think they should), we are going to be up against these questions every year – what can win on a preferential ballot and what can’t? Do the limiting factors that weigh in the balance represent a fair system?

This isn’t to question whether Spotlight was a good choice for Best Picture – it really is. It’s an important film, flawlessly executed. Spotlight might still have won on a plurality vote – after all, it did just that at the SAG Awards. My question is just this: does the current system work on doesn’t it work?

If it doesn’t work, here a few suggestions on how to fix it.

1 – Separate Best Picture into more categories with no more than five nominees in each group, making it possible to return to a simple plurality ballot while also opening the door to more and varied films overall. This might involve a separate set of “effects-driven films” which would vie against one another in their own category. Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Film could be an alternative name since big effects-driven films often fall into this category. While it seems this may “ghettoize” these films, it would at least give movies like Mad Max a better chance to win a top award and for movies like Star Wars to get a top nomination. Is it fair to put this kind of film up against character-driven films like 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, and The Hurt Locker — when the Academy has demonstrated its resistance to brilliantly imaginative futuristic films for 88 years in a row?

2 – Simply go back to five Best Picture nominees and protesters be damned. You know, I’m not sure the whole goal of trying to embrace a wider range of films is really working anyway. The films that were supposed to get in still don’t get in (Star Wars). Films like Straight Outta Compton are still shunned while films like Selma struggle to get even a single nomination. It is what it is and the majority of people out there have long since stopped caring about what wins the Oscar. Only a Best Picture victory by Mad Max or The Revenant or maybe The Big Short, but probably not even that, would have ignited people to care about the Oscars this year. The nominations ballot as currently designed is not intended to reward the films the public cares about. Why doesn’t it? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know. Are the Oscars doomed to become as niche and insular as the Tonys? Probably. So why not just go back to five, admit their blinkered limitations, and go on about their business.

3 – Expand Best Picture to ten slots and name two Best Pictures of the year. Probably this is the worst of the three ideas but I think we’re running out of options. With two Best Picture winners, one would be the Academy’s choice and the other the People’s Choice. The People’s Choice could be chosen by inviting the public to vote for the movies nominated for Best Picture. I suspect that this year The Revenant might have won that. I don’t think this idea is so bad but I know Academy members would scoff at it.

These are my best options to help save the Academy from itself. I’d like to hear from you. Does the system need fixing or is it just fine as it is?