Jennifer Lawrence
Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

For those of you who haven’t been following the Oscar race like a college scout at a high-school football game, you might have some questions about this year’s slate of Best Picture nominees. First and foremost, why are there nine of them? Couldn’t the Academy have found one more film and made it a nice, round group of ten? And how did small-ish movies like The Tree of Life and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close get in over crowd-pleasers like Bridesmaids and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? The answer, to your algebra teacher’s delight, involves some math.

The Academy uses what’s known as a preferential voting system, and for an extremely detailed explanation of how that tabulation method works, check out our mock Best Picture vote from a year ago. The preferential voting method is used to determine the nominees for nearly every Oscar category, but starting this year, the Academy tweaked the process for Best Picture. Instead of having a set number of Best Picture nominees (like 10 the past two years, or five for the many years before that), the Academy modified the preferential system so that there would be anywhere from five to 10 Best Picture nominees.

So here’s how this year’s Best Picture slate of nine films was determined:

(1) The entire Academy votes for Best Picture, with each member ranking his or her five favorite movies of the year from No. 1 to No. 5.

(2) Each ballot is sorted into a pile based upon that voter’s No. 1 selection. So there’s a pile for The Artist, a pile for Hugo, and so forth. A movie must receive at least one first-choice pick to remain in play.

(3) A “magic number” is determined using this formula: [# of overall ballots] / [# of total nominee slots + 1]. The Academy has 5,783 voting members, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s say that 5,000 of them returned ballots. So that’d be [5,000] / [10 nominee slots + 1], or 5,000 divided by 11, which equals 454.5. The Academy always rounds up, so the magic number in this scenario is 455.

(4) Any movie that received at least 455 No. 1 votes is automatically a Best Picture nominee. Those ballots are set aside. However, there’s also a “surplus rule.” Simply put, any movie that initially exceeds the magic number by at least 20 percent has all its ballots redistributed based upon each voter’s next eligible choice. Each ballot is still worth only one point, but that point is now split between the voter’s No. 1 choice and some other film. I will spare you the math involved, but just keep this in mind: If an Academy member votes for a film that’s extremely popular, there’s a chance that voter’s No. 2 or No. 3 (or possibly No. 4 or No. 5) choice will have some influence.

(5) At this point, every film with less than 1 percent of the total vote is disqualified, and those ballots are redistributed to their next ranked pick — as long as the movie is still in contention and not already nominated. If your No. 2 film was already eliminated or nominated, we’d proceed to your No. 3 choice, and so forth.

(6) Before this year, the Academy’s accountants would continue eliminating the film with the fewest ballots and reassigning those ballots until they were left with five Best Picture nominees (or 10 nominees for the last two years). But, here’s where the process was altered this year. Instead of continuing to redistribute ballots, the vote stops, and the accountants simply count the number of ballots for each remaining film. Any film with 5 percent of the total vote becomes a Best Picture nominee. If 5,000 members voted, that means any film with 250 ballots (or 5 percent of 5,000) in its pile is nominated. According to the Academy’s calculations, this last step will result in a final Best Picture slate that features anywhere from five to 10 movies.

What does it all mean? It means that, more than ever before, a voter’s No. 1 selection is the thing that matters. The only way a ballot’s No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, or No. 5 selection will come into play is if that voter’s No. 1 choice was extremely popular (triggering the surplus rule) or extremely unpopular (receiving less than 1 percent of total vote). Except for in those two scenarios, a voter’s No. 1 selection is the only way his or her ballot will have any influence.

As a result, passion rules. A film needs to receive a significant amount of No. 1 votes from the start. If the majority of the Academy puts your film in their No. 2 or No. 3 slots, but hardly anyone writes it down for No. 1, it’s not going to get nominated. In other words, it’s better to be loved by a small and passionate group instead of liked by a much larger group — that is, as long as that small and passionate group isn’t much smaller than 5 percent of the Academy.

This explains how love-it-or-hate-it films like The Tree of Life and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close became Best Picture nominees. Even if a large portion of the Academy didn’t care for The Tree of Life, there was a committed group that adored the movie — and that group was just large enough to account for an estimated 250 No. 1 votes. Bridesmaids and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, on the other hand, likely received plenty of No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 votes. But how many Academy members flat-out loved the movies enough to place them at No. 1 on their ballots? As we found out today, not enough.

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