A funny thing happens on the way to Oscar. There are only two groups that employ the preferential ballot system in the entire Oscar race: the Producers Guild and the Academy. A quick and dirty history for those who haven’t been following along for the past 20 years. Ahem.
In the early days of Oscar, there were a variable, not fixed, number of Best Picture nominees. Just for fun, let’s count them out for the record because we’re going to need these when we talk about the split years.
Those in BOLD and red won Best Picture and Best Director.
1927/28 – 3 (Wings / Frank Borzage, 7th Heaven; Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights)
1928/29 – 5 (The Broadway Melody / Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady)
1929/30 – 5 (All Quiet on the Western Front / Lewis Milestone)
1930/31 – 5 (Cimarron / Norman Taurog, Skippy)
Preferential ballot, variable number of nominees:
1931/32 – 8 (Grand Hotel / Frank Borzage, Bad Girl)
1932/33 – 10 (Cavalcade / Frank Lloyd)
1934 – 12 (It Happened One Night / Frank Capra)
1935 – 12 (Mutiny on the Bounty / John Ford, The Informer)
Preferential ballot, 10 nominees:
1936 – The Great Ziegfeld / Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
1937 – The Life of Emile Zola / Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
1938 – You Can’t Take it With You / Frank Capra
1939 – Gone with the Wind / Victor Fleming
1940 – Rebecca / John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
1941 – How Green Was My Valley / John Ford
1942 – Mrs. Miniver / William Wyler
1943 – Casablanca / Michael Curtiz
No preferential ballot, five nominees:
1944 – Going My Way / Leo McCarey
1945 – The Lost Weekend / Billy Wilder
1946 – The Best Years of Our Lives / William Wyler
1947 – Gentleman’s Agreement / Elia Kazan
1948 – Hamlet / John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre
1949 – All the King’s Men / Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives
1950 – All About Eve / Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1951 – An American in Paris / George Stevens, A Place in the Sun
1952 – The Greatest Show on Earth / John Ford, The Quiet Man
1953 – From Here to Eternity / Fred Zinnemann
1954 – On the Waterfront / Elia Kazan
1955 – Marty / Delbert Mann
1956 – Around the World in 80 Days / George Stevens, Giant
1957 – The Bridge on the River Kwai / David Lean
1958 – Gigi / Vincente Minnelli
1959 – Ben Hur / William Wyler
1960 – The Apartment / Billy Wilder
1961 – West Side Story / Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
1962 – Lawrence of Arabia / David Lean
1963 – Tom Jones / Tony Richardson
1964 – My Fair Lady / George Cukor
1965 – The Sound of Music / Robert Wise
1966 – A Man for All Seasons / Fred Zinnemann
1967 – In the Heat of the Night / Mike Nichols, The Graduate
1968 – Oliver! / Carol Reed
1969 – Midnight Cowboy / John Schlesinger
1970 – Patton / Franklin J. Schaffner
1971 – The French Connection / William Friedkin
1972 – The Godfather / Bob Fosse, Cabaret
1973 – The Sting / George Roy Hill
1974 – The Godfather Part II / Francis Ford Coppola
1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / Milos Forman
1976 – Rocky / John G. Avildsen
1977 – Annie Hall / Woody Allen
1978 – The Deer Hunter / Michael Cimino
1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer / Robert Benton
1980 – Ordinary People / Robert Redford
1981 – Chariots of Fire / Warren Beatty, Reds
1982 – Gandhi / Richard Attenborough
1983 – Terms of Endearment / James L. Brooks
1984 – Amadeus / Milos Forman
1985 – Out of Africa / Sidney Pollack
1986 – Platoon / Oliver Stone
1987 – The Last Emperor / Bernardo Bertolucci
1988 – Rain Man / Barry Levinson
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy / Oliver Stone, Born on the 4th of July
1990 – Dances with Wolves / Kevin Costner
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs / Jonathan Demme
1992 – Unforgiven / Clint Eastwood
1993 – Schindler’s List / Steven Spielberg
1994 – Forrest Gump / Robert Zemeckis
1995 – Braveheart / Mel Gibson
1996 – The English Patient / Anthony Minghella
1997 – Titanic / James Cameron
1998 – Shakespeare in Love / Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan
1999 – American Beauty / Sam Mendes
2000 – Gladiator / Steven Soderbergh, Traffic (my first year covering the Oscars)
2001 – A Beautiful Mind / Ron Howard
2002 – Chicago / Roman Polanski, The Pianist
2003 – LOTR: Return of the King / Peter Jackson
2004 – Million Dollar Baby / Clint Eastwood
2005 – Crash / Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
2006 – The Departed / Martin Scorsese
2007 – No Country for Old Men / The Coen brothers
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire / Danny Boyle
Preferential ballot returns, 10 nominees:
2009 – The Hurt Locker / Kathyrn Bigelow
2010 – The King’s Speech / Tom Hooper
Preferential ballot evolves – variable number of nominees between 5–10:
2011 – 9 (The Artist / Michel Hazanavicius)
2012 – 9 (Argo / Ang Lee, Life of Pi)
2013 – 9 (12 Years a Slave / Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity)
2014 – 8 (Birdman / Alejandro G. Innaritu)
2015 – 8 (Spotlight / Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant)
2016 – 9 (Moonlight / Damien Chazelle, La La Land)
2017 – 9 (The Shape of Water / Guillermo del Toro)
2018 – 8 (Green Book / Alfonso Cuaron, Roma)
I think there are a couple of things that are pretty clear from this list. First, when there were only five nominees, Best Picture and Best Director tended to go together– it was only every so often there would be a split. In contrast, once the Best Picture lineup expanded, it was less likely that the two would match. The other thing is that the Three Amigos have really dominated hard this decade, winning five of the last six Best Director awards (although only winning Best Picture twice). That’s an interesting kind of “norm” that voters have become accustomed to, partly because Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and Alfonso Cuaron have been visionaries and pioneers in AMERICAN film of late, taking the industry and critics by storm, and partly because there has been less of a focus on the “big studio movie” for the Best Picture win, really until last year with Green Book from Universal.
The reason for more splits is fairly simple: when you have more Best Picture contenders, voters tend to spread the wealth more than they do give a sweep to any one movie. The underlying logic is if that many voters can have more of their favorite films nominated, then they will tend to ensure all of those movies win something. If there are only five movies up for Best Picture, it is much easier to rally behind just one king (or queen) to rule them all.
The preferential ballot is an odd way to go about choosing the best. For nominations, it rewards passion. A film has to have around 250-300 number one votes to secure a nomination. But when it comes to wins, it doesn’t reward passion but rather broad likability.
When it comes time to pick a winner, voters are asked to rank their preferences. Each film with enough number one votes gets their own pile. Once all of the ballots are counted, the pile that has the least number of number one votes is eliminated. All of the ballots in that pile are then redistributed to different piles. Here is Steve Pond’s video on how that works:
Best Director, though, is never put to the same test. It is always a simple “most votes wins after one round of voting” (i.e., plurality) contest, along with the rest of the categories. It’s difficult to be able to assess how the last ten years would have gone if there hadn’t been a preferential ballot and only five nominees for Best Picture. I think you can do it by looking at what got into the other categories. You can also do it by looking at the guild nominations. It’s possible to guess which five might have gotten in, though we’d all probably be off by probably one title, I would guess.
But it is safe to assume that if there had been only five, Best Picture and Best Director would likely have matched more than they have since 2009.
Green Book and Argo both won Best Picture without their director even being nominated, which is extremely rare throughout Academy history. Before Argo, it was the Driving Miss Daisy stat. Now there are two: the Argo and the Green Book stat.
It’s so common to have the two categories not match, that most people heading into the race don’t even bother predicting both to get nominated. They see each category and separate but equal. This year, people are already saying they think it could split between Quentin Tarantino, who has never won for Best Director, and some other movie for Best Picture, believing that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood won’t win on a preferential ballot.
So what does that mean when we say something “can’t win” on a preferential ballot? It means that the film is too divisive to win, meaning people either love it or hate it. What you want to do to win Best Picture is to either win with overwhelming support on the first ballot or be well-liked across the board to continually pick up support with each additional round of voting. For the former, we count these as the movies that won the big guilds heading into the Oscars:
The Hurt Locker – PGA/DGA
The King’s Speech – PGA/DGA/SAG
Argo – PGA/DGA/SAG
Birdman – PGA/DGA/SAG
The films that showed some potential recount situation would be those that didn’t have strength in all three guilds. Even though The Hurt Locker didn’t win SAG ensemble, it was nominated:
12 Years a Slave – PGA (split award with Gravity)
Spotlight – SAG ensemble only
Moonlight – none of the three main guilds
Green Book – PGA only (no SAG ensemble nom)
The Shape of Water – PGA/DGA (no SAG ensemble nom)
And films that almost made it but didn’t:
La La Land – PGA/DGA (no SAG ensemble nom)
The Revenant – DGA only (no SAG ensemble nom)
Roma – DGA only (no SAG ensemble nom)
I’d say La La Land was the hardest year to call because it really looked like it had everything sewn up. But there was a backlash against it that hit right after it went a record 7/7 at the Golden Globes. After that, it became a target for scrutiny that ran the gamut from the whole “white guy knows jazz” meme to people commenting on the actual singing and dancing of the leads. And there was the 2016 election, wherein a dark cloud covered everything, making people think differently about everything – suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be all about the privileged white person’s experience with Trump in office. Either way, La La Land became a love it/hate it film, and that paved the way for something else to upset it.
At the same time, Moonlight was the film everyone was pushing for instead, and that film benefited from additional rounds of voting when it probably would not have won on a plurality vote.
The same sort of thing happened with Three Billboards, where it had a lot of actor support. It won the BAFTA and might have won on a plurality vote, but because it also was divisive heading into the final Oscar vote, it, too, could not survive after additional rounds of voting.
To reiterate, what you want to be heading into Oscar night is either a PGA/DGA/SAG sweeper or a film that will survive and thrive in a recount situation. That means a lot of people put the film at number one OR number two OR number three OR number four OR even number five. They push it to the top of the ballot because they love it that much. Good people doing things, filmmakers they want to root for, or a movie they just like the most. Last year, Green Book likely benefited not just from people liking it, but from people feeling defensive about how badly it had been attacked throughout the season so that even if it wasn’t their number one choice, it landed near the top of their ballots.
There you have it, Oscarwatchers – everything you never wanted to know about the preferential ballot.
In summary, remember these key points:
- A film that is divisive CAN win if it wins in the first round of voting (has the support of the major guilds behind it, like Birdman).
- A film that is well-liked across the board AND has enough passion to get those number one votes will do better on a preferential ballot than movies that don’t have the additional passion votes.
- It’s much more likely now for Picture and Director to split and less likely any one film will “sweep” the Oscars since voters seem to prefer to “spread the wealth.”