We decipher the Academy's tricky approach to counting ballots — and use 2,000 voters from EW.com to try it out

Think it’s hard work making a movie good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination? Try counting the ballots. It takes a team of 12 accountants seven days to tabulate the Oscar nominations, using a complicated preferential voting method that involves repeatedly sorting thousands of ballots — by hand — into separate piles. ”There’s no question it takes a lot of time,” says Rick Rosas, one of the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants who lead the effort. To simulate the whole shebang, we asked 2,000 EW.com readers to rank their 10 favorite films of 2010 in order—from No. 1 to No. 10 — just as Academy members do. We then followed the Academy’s preferential system, in use since 1934, to arrive at our readers’ 10 picks for Best Picture. Though voters list 10 movies, each ballot winds up helping only one or two films score a nomination. The process, which rivals Quidditch in complexity, goes like this:

1. Let the sorting begin!
Each Best Picture ballot is sorted into a pile based on that voter’s No. 1 film. A movie must receive at least one first-choice pick to remain in play. In our mock vote, 172 films out of an eligible 248 were instantly eliminated because they received no No. 1 votes — including such acclaimed works as Animal Kingdom and Waiting for ”Superman.” Yet someone ranked Vampires Suck at No. 1 and it moved on.

2. The magic number
One way for a film to secure a nomination is to reach a predetermined quota. With 2,000 ballots, our simulation’s magic number was 182. (To see how this number was determined, go to ew.com/oscarmath.) Four movies had at least 182 first-choice votes: Inception (425), The Social Network (401), Black Swan (300), and Toy Story 3 (196). They became instant nominees.

3. The popular kids’ rule
For any movie that initially exceeds the magic number by at least 20 percent, there’s an extra (and extra-complicated) step: Each ballot is still worth only one point, but that point is split between the voter’s already selected No. 1 and his or her next eligible choice. For example, Inception received more than twice the No. 1 votes required to get nominated, so its ballots were re-sorted and now worth half a point, with a half point going to another film. (The math here gets trickier than a David Lynch movie.) This rule assures Academy members that should they pick an extremely popular film, their vote won’t be wasted. In our simulation, the ballots for Inception, The Social Network, and Black Swan were redistributed, and as a result, The King’s Speech got enough new points to pass the magic number.

4. Process of elimination
At this stage, every film with less than 1 percent of the total vote is disqualified. As before, that film’s ballots are redistributed to the next ranked pick — as long as that movie is still in contention (and not already nominated). ”You are essentially casting one vote,” says Academy executive director Bruce Davis, ”and the system gives your vote to the picture that most needs it.” None of our remaining movies hit the magic number, so we kept eliminating the film with the fewest ballots and reassigning those ballots. This continued until we ended up with 10 nominees. Along the way, Shutter Island, Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The Kids Are All Right were eliminated (in that order). The five films left standing — 127 Hours, The Fighter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1, The Town, and True Grit — thereby snatched the last Best Picture slots, even though none of them ever reached the magic number.
The lesson here: To get nominated, a movie requires passionate support. The Kids Are All Right dominated the lower slots on our readers’ ballots, but with only 33 No. 1 votes, it started the race too far behind its competitors. A film or performance doesn’t capture a nod simply by being liked by everyone — it needs to be loved.

EW.COM Readers’ Best Picture Nominees

425 No. 1 Votes
The Social Network
401 No. 1 Votes
Black Swan
300 No. 1 Votes
Toy Story 3
196 No. 1 Votes
The King’s Speech
179 No. 1 Votes
The Town
53 No. 1 Votes
True Grit
52 No. 1 Votes
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1
49 No. 1 Votes
The Fighter
47 No. 1 Votes
127 Hours
43 No. 1 Votes