Remember when The Dark Knight was shut out of the Best Picture race and the Academy decided to expand their list from five nominees to ten? Yeah, so then the following two years produced some of the best lineups for Best Picture the Academy has ever seen. Diverse, interesting, inclusive choices because they weren’t bound to this number one nonsense so much — they each had to fill out ten choices, which allowed members to be more free with what they might consider a Best Picture contender. But voters didn’t like filling out ten. They had been conditioned to only pick five. After two years of a solid ten, the Academy decided to go back to the way they used to do it — have members choose only five titles. They would then decide the winners the same way they had always done but would loosen the belt a bit to allow for more films to be nominated — somewhere between five and, they say, ten. But it’s almost impossible to reach the full ten. In fact, it’s never happened in any of the years the Academy used the same method to name more than five nominees.
To me, their best methods are when they go for a solid ten (more inclusive) or a solid five (less herding cats). The conclusions I’ve come to watching them change the number of Best Picture nominees has been interesting.
1) I always thought that the strongest films would have to have a corresponding Best Director nomination — not true. Argo disproved that theory.
2) I always assumed that a film with the strongest guild showing that didn’t make the Best Picture cut in the past (like Almost Famous, for instance) was a shoo-in to get in under the current system. Not true, Dragon Tattoo two years ago proved that you could be a very strong contender with the guilds but still not make it under their new method of having voters pick only five and have the math of the vote tabulations determine how many more than five movies will be nominated, depending on the voter support.
3) Emotional response rules. When voters base their selections on their five personal favorites, a system that counts the number one votes first gives precedence to emotional reaction. That is how Extremely Loud and War Horse ended up contenders, although it’s possible those two films might have gotten in with a solid ten, no way with a solid five.
4) The new system where voters pick five movies, and not ten, has all but obliterated diversity (although this year will put that theory to the test once again, organically). The mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle aged voters pick five mostly white, mostly male-centered films. Movies like District 9, The Kids Are All Right, maybe even Winter’s Bone might not have a chance now because how many voters are going to put District 9 in their top five? A few maybe, enough to put it in the pile, but nowhere near as much if voters had ten slots.
5) With more slots for Best Picture the movies suddenly look a lot better. We’ve had, so far, nine Best Picture nominees two years since they changed their rules for the last time. This year looks a lot like last year and the year before: many films to choose from, an embarrassment of riches, even. So expect nine once again. Just maybe don’t expect ten, and here’s Steve Pond to explain why:
A quick refresher course on the system: Voters rank their top five favorites in order of preference. Any movie that’s listed at No. 1 on more than 8.9 percent of the ballots is an automatic nominee.
A complicated wrinkle called “the surplus rule” then kicks in, apportioning partial votes from ballots whose first choices have received significantly more votes than they need.
Finally, first choices with less than 1 percent of the vote have their votes shifted to the second (or third, fourth or fifth) choice on each of those ballots.
At that point, any movie with more than 5 percent of the vote (300 votes, give or take) is a nominee. Any movie with less is not.
Under that system, with its single round of redistribution limiting the chances for films that don’t get 300 first-place votes right away, more good movies don’t lead to more nominations unless the votes are very evenly divided. An overabundance of quality could just as easily push borderline films out as get them in.
In fact, there’s simply no precedent for a full slate of 10 nominees. Sure, the 2009 and 2010 Oscar years each produced that many — but those were years when 10 nominees were automatic, before the variable system was instituted.
To help the Academy decide whether to adopt the system, PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants went back over eight previous years of Oscar voting, 2001-2008, and counted the ballots all over again using the new system. According to PwC and AMPAS, the recount would have resulted in years of five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees—but never a year of 10. And in the last two years, after the system was in place, there were nine nominees both years.