Most people don’t think about ranked voting when they think about Best Picture. Even those predicting the race right now don’t think about it like that. They just think: what are voters going to think is the best film of the year. But to understand how Best Picture is chosen, you have to understand how ranked choice (preferential) voting works.
Last year, when we were doing our Best Picture polls, we could easily see that Nomadland had it in the bag. Nothing was even coming close to making it sweat even a little bit. It wasn’t because it was everyone’s number one choice, but because if it wasn’t number one, it was likely going to be number two or number three, or top five at the very least. It had pure love going for it, but it also had “making history in a historic year” going for it. And it had the added benefit of it being a COVID year, where it didn’t have a lot of competition.
Understanding Ranked Voting
When you start counting off the piles of ballots, as one does when running (what Marshall Flores calls) a “sim” – for “simulation” — you can see why “pure love” but also general likability and support matters. If you pick any film other than the top three vote getters, your number one vote is likely tossed aside. If your number two vote isn’t one of the three top vote getters, it too will be tossed aside. Down and down it goes until we get to one of the top of three vote getters. It is really only a matter of which one of those three you like best. Your favorite of the year does not factor in.
You have to figure out what people will be ranking higher on their ballots. Figuring out their number one, unless that movie wins the majority on the first round, is less important than figuring out what movies people universally love and why. What would, say, drive The Big Short to the top of the PGA ballot in that absolutely bonkers year of 2015? The Revenant won the DGA. Spotlight won the SAG and would go on to win the Oscar, but why didn’t either of those win the PGA and why did The Big Short?
I think there are a couple of reasons. The first was political: you had the Bernie Bros in the house that year and they were about to mobilize a force to challenge the Democrats in 2016. They were anti-Wall Street and a very strong Hollywood contingent would have been on board with that. There was also the Brad Pitt factor — he was one of the producers. When people say “The Revenant and Spotlight split the vote,” that isn’t really right because a ranked choice ballot is designed to neutralize a split vote. It is only a matter of who pushes what films to the top.
The Revenant might have come in with more number one votes, but if people didn’t choose it as their number one, what would have been their motivation to put it at #2? There wasn’t one. In contrast, putting Spotlight at #2 was easy — the studio and publicity team did a really good job distinguishing Spotlight (good people doing good things) from The Big Short (bad people doing bad things, mostly). That made the difference and helped put Spotlight over the top in the end. The Revenant also didn’t really have any kind of extra thing about it that would make people feel either good about supporting it or obligated to support it.
You only have to ding perception a little bit to put one movie lower on voters’ ballots than another. This would have been Green Book’s fate had the Academy not pushed back against what they (rightly) believed was an unfair tsunami of hate aimed at what was a crowdpleaser. Roma was never going to win Best Picture — it simply had too many obstacles in its way. It isn’t Parasite — it isn’t a movie that people can really get. In fact, a lot of people didn’t get it and didn’t even like it. It was beautiful, sure, but it had the kind of plot critics like but not awards voters. When it was Three Billboards up against The Shape of Water — well, one of those movies made people feel “bad” because of the press surrounding it and one movie made people feel “good” because it had such a beautiful ending.
It’s easy to think about The Hurt Locker and Nomadland being pushed to the top, even if people only appreciated, but did not “love” the movies or the movies weren’t exactly FEEL GOOD, they loved the idea of a woman finally winning and they loved the women themselves. They loved the idea of voting for a film that was going to make history. This was also true of Parasite. The movie itself can come secondary to the high people get from pushing a film they know will make a difference to the top of their ballots.
When you look at probably the most dramatic upset in this regard, Moonlight vs. La La Land, you could feel the mood shifting from one to the other. It wasn’t just because people like Mark Duplass and other Academy members were urging people via social media to vote for Moonlight, but it was also the mood of the country after Trump won. La La Land felt a bit like Rules of the Game that depicted people who were fiddling while Rome burned. It felt like the world before everything changed. Moonlight, in anticipation of what would be a massive cultural overhaul in the next four years and reaching its apex in 2020, spoke more to the moment. And thus, it pulled ahead where La La Land faltered. And honestly, we’re probably not talking by much here. Maybe 20 or 30 votes. Maybe more. Who knows. It will have to remain a mystery.
When There Were Five
Winning Best Picture now almost feels like an afterthought. The big studios no longer measure their success on winning Oscars, certainly not Best Picture. But it did used to mean something very big. Best Picture winners of the past were practically empires onto themselves. If you did what Jim Cameron did with Titanic and defy the naysayers who said you had a disaster on your hands to turn out what was then the highest grossing film of all time, how could you not sweep the Oscars? Cameron waved his third Oscar of the night in the air to the community that had largely mocked him the year before they knew he was the “King of the World” and the King of the film industry.
But everyone knows we don’t see Best Picture winners like this anymore. We don’t even see kings like this anymore. You don’t become a king in a night, or king for a day even, by making a film that tops the box office. No one cares about your personal creative arc, especially if (not to put too fine a point on it) you’re a white dude. They really want to see underdogs rise up — a comeback kid or a person from a marginalized group — than they do a coronation of a guy like Cameron. But, you know what? He deserved it that year. And there isn’t anything wrong with kings. Not in a industry based on gods and goddesses.
And besides, if you watch Cameron’s speech, you see he doesn’t make it about being “King of the World,” not at the Oscars at least. He makes it about the people who died on the Titanic. It’s quite a moving thing and a moment of humility for the man who would be King. Pause to ruminate how Twitter would have treated Jim Cameron throughout this Oscar run. Can you imagine?
There Can’t Be a Split Vote
Best Picture with five meant winning a simple plurality vote with only one round of voting. In those cases, you CAN have a split vote scenario (as we likely had with Best Actress last year). When it was Reds vs. Chariots of Fire, that came down to a vote-splitting scenario because the actors were divided with another movie where actors dominated: On Golden Pond. So it was really a race between On Golden Pond and Reds, but Chariots of Fire ended up picking up more votes than either of the other two movies. Without Reds, On Golden Pond probably would have won. Without On Golden Pond, Reds probably would have won. So it was one for the ages instead, a total shocker of a winner to come out of Oscar night.
But years like that were rare. Best Pictures were built to be CHAMPIONS at the box office and in the industry. They meant something. Now, they don’t really mean that anymore. They now mean something much different. They are a credibility sticker that says “we still care about quality.” The champions now are those who (prior to COVID) win the international box office. Money still talks, but it just has nothing to do with the Oscars anymore and the kinds of films that make the kind of money they’re looking for aren’t getting anywhere near the Oscars anyway.
Enter Streaming Platforms
Beyond the way the Oscars have been used of late in putting a gold sticker of quality on the brand that is Hollywood, they are also potentially a path to building out the streaming film industry. The future is coming whether people want to fight it or not. You really only have the choice of survival: adapt or die. That means for Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Hulu, and others that a universe of opportunity opens up if they are allowed into the Oscar race. The Oscars, then, become something much different than they used to be.
In such an instance, it may or may not make a difference whether you use ranked voting or not. You aren’t really looking for champions anymore. You don’t really have that kind of industry. You don’t have profit. You have careers that can be made from wins and you have the tech industry inserting itself to a medium formerly dominated by movie studios.
It would be slightly less nerve-racking if Big Tech hadn’t already shown its inclination towards authoritarianism — banning undesirables and the like. Thank god Ted Sarandos did not pull Dave Chappelle’s show, because that really would have been a bad sign of things to come. The Oscars are too attentive, I think, to the small but loud community on Twitter and less attentive to the general consumers out there.
But here’s the thing to STILL KNOW. When you have more than five movies nominated for Best Picture, the wins tend to be divided up among the nominees much more than they did when there were just five. In fact, now it’s less common for any acting winner to not be from a Best Picture contender. But there were years recently when all the major winners weren’t in Best Picture contenders because they did not make the cut. We know that a movie like Walk the Line, for instance, definitely would have been nominated with an expanded ballot. Ditto movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, Dreamgirls, Adaptation, and other films that seemed really destined for wins. Basically, if you look at what was winning either Screenplay or acting you know it would have likely gotten in.
This year, the movies that will do well with ranked choice will be judged on the following criteria:
- Pure love. Beating pure love is a tough one. Rival publicists will try to muddy the pure love if they want to ding the frontrunner. There are already whisper campaigns floating around right now in an effort to do just that. But love is love is love, and the heart wants what it wants.
- Virtue signaling. It matters. People in the Academy fit the description of not only “good people doing good things” but people who want to be seen as “good people doing good things.” Goodness rules the modern day Left, which rules the Oscars currently. Good could mean pushing for BIPOC or women behind the camera. Good could mean a movie with the “right” message. Good could mean making history.
- How do you build Best Picture? Branch by branch, says Anne Thompson. It isn’t always a requirement to have representation in many of the major categories, but you need the basics – writing, directing, and often acting (though not always, see Parasite). Writing, as we know, tends to be even more popular than directing now in determining a BP winner. Getting that nomination matters a lot.
- First, do no harm. Your movie can’t have massive amounts of haters, Green Book notwithstanding. This is why underdogs tend to fare better with the preferential ballot. They aren’t targets, so no one hits at them. The longer a movie hangs out as the frontrunner, the more people start to want to take it down, and not just rival studios but people who are bored with nothing better to do.
- Passion drives nominations — but overall likability, universal warmth, and praise wins on a preferential ballot.
The films I think have the best shot to WIN on a preferential ballot right now, without having seen the remaining movies, are the same ones I’ve been predicting to win since Telluride:
The Power of the Dog
In that order. Can any other movie challenge these three? None that I have seen so far. West Side Story, Don’t Look Up, Nightmare Alley are all still to come.
But winning doesn’t have anything to do with nominations. Predicting those is just your good old fashioned passion. What movies do people love? What movies do they like a lot? What movies will they vote for just to see them do well? That is a conversation for a different day.