Friday Night Dinners: Explaining The Preferential Ballot

How Does The Preferential Ballot Work?

Welcome to another edition of Friday Night Dinners! This is my semi-regular segment where I try to break down some sort of Big Picture idea in the realm of pop culture. This week, we’re going to be taking a look at the Preferential Ballot: what it is, how it works, what it has done to the Oscars, and what it means for this year (specifically, why I am currently predicting Get Out to win Best Picture)! By the end, hopefully you’ll understand how crazy this makes the Oscar race, and whether you love it or hate it, you’ll end up being a master of predicting the race too!

So, what is the preferential ballot? Well, the preferential ballot is a way of voting designed to find the most generally liked film. Unlike a popular vote, where the film with the most votes wins, a preferential ballot requires a complicated algorithm in order to determine which film is most well-liked across the board. Think of it as the Electoral College of the Oscars. This was the system in place in the early days of the Oscars, before they switched over to a popular ballot. From 1944 to 2008, the Academy utilized a winner-take-all system. However, things changed in 2009, for two reasons. The first was the major backlash received by the perceived snubs of The Dark Knight and Wall-E, which people felt were well-liked enough that they could have competed for Best Picture if the Academy weren’t so snobby. The second was a desire to present the runaway trend that had developed in recent years – the fun was sucked out of it, they felt, should Titanic and Slumdog Millionaire win every category (the only film to ever sweep under a preferential ballot is Gone With The Wind). However, this ironically resulted in two unforeseen scenarios: first, instead of favoring big-budget populist films, the preferential ballot favored smaller indie films that otherwise wouldn’t have stood a chance; and second, this has resulted in two “big” winners come Oscar night – a technical wonder (i.e. Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road) and a Best Picture winner (The King’s Speech, Argo). If you look at the numbers, stats, and results, this has almost consistently been the case since 2010. This also means that any stats you can think of – about the editing category, the directing category, the screenplay category, etc. – need to be tossed out the window prior to 2009. This is an entirely different sport we’re playing, and we don’t compare Michael Jordan the basketball player to Michael Jordan the baseball player.

At this point, I’m sure you’re asking, “Right, right, I get all that, but how does it work?” To answer, I’m going to need to create an example. For this analogy, let’s say there are eight Best Picture nominees: Film A, Film B, Film C, and so on through Film H. Now, in order to win Best Picture Film A is the “frontrunner” – it has 12 nominations, everyone went to see it, and it feels like an “Oscar” film. Film B is the film that everyone likes – it’s just fairly genial and well-made, the critics and Academy like it, and it just made its budget back. Film C is the critical favorite, but not everyone saw it, and it’s fairly artsy. Now, when the 6,000 members of the Academy cast their votes, they are instructed not only to pick their favorite film, but to rank each of the films nominated for Best Picture. They have to give each film a number from 1 to 8, 1 being their favorite and 8 being their least favorite. Remember that, because that will be important in a minute. Now, let’s say that after the votes are cast, the results shake out like this:

Film A: 25%
Film B: 15%
Film C: 13%
Film D: 12%
Film E: 10%
Film F: 9%
Film G: 9%
Film H: 7%

On a popular ballot, the race would be over. Film A is overwhelmingly the favorite, and therefor the winner. However, here’s where things get interesting: in order to win on a preferential ballot, a film needs 51% of the vote. Since no one made it on this vote, we must head to round two. In round two, we take the film with the least amount of votes (here Film H), and we eliminate it. Film H can no longer win Best Picture. The #1 film on these ballots are stricken from the record, and those #1 votes now go to their #2 choice. So now, that 7% is redistributed to the other films. And once those votes are redistributed, we move on to the next lowest – here Film G. Film G’s #2s go to the rest of the films, and should any of Film H’s #2s appear here (or should Film H be the #2), those ballots move down to #3. And so on and so forth. Now, as the redistributing goes on, something becomes clear: Film A and Film C are facing difficulty getting #2 and #3 votes. Film A has suffered some sort of “overrated” controversy in the public, and a lot of people cast it as their #6 or #7 choice. Meanwhile, Film C was an artsier, more challenging contender, and the largely older, conservative members of the Academy dismissively voted it as their #8 choice out of spite. Meanwhile, because no one can hate Film B, many voters chose it as their #2 and #3 choice, meaning that when a lower film gets eliminated, its votes largely go to – you guessed it – Film B. When all is said and done, despite only having 15% of the overall vote, Film B ends up hitting 60% of the vote to Film A’s 40%. And that is how you determine a Best Picture contender. It doesn’t help to be the most loved. You win Best Picture by being the most liked.

Ok, ok, these hypotheticals are getting a bit confusing, I know. So I thought I would give you all an example. The year is 2015. It’s one of the closest Oscar races ever (at least in theory). These are your nominees for Best Picture:

  • The Big Short
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Brooklyn
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Room
  • Spotlight

Of that list, there are three frontrunners: The Big Short, The Revenant, and Spotlight. Each film wins a different preseason indicator, each has a major hurdle in its path, and, and no one can tell who will win. The Revenant has 12 nominations, including Best Picture, and it is the frontrunner to win Best Director and Actor, both strong indicators of the top award. It quickly becomes the frontrunner, and most people (myself included) expect it to take home Best Picture. However, the film has a plethora of issues facing it: the film is incredibly dark, turning off several older members of the Academy; it’s fairly messy, turning off several younger members; and the message was lost on many people, turning off…well, everyone. Look at the rest of that field: outside of a couple of left-field nominations (hi, Mad Max!), those films are fairly simple, conservative, and conventional. The people that nominated those films most certainly cast The Revenant as their #7 or #8 film. This narrowed the field down to The Big Short and Spotlight. Let’s now take a look at The Big Short. The Big Short was an absurd, balls-out extravaganza exploring the collapse of the stock market. Adam McKay’s film was incredibly smart – in fact, it was too smart. The editing was slick, the story tongue-in-cheek, and the heroes were, in many ways, the villains we were rooting against. It certainly wasn’t a film that the simpler older people would vote for #1, #2, or #3. While it wasn’t as widely loathed as The Revenant, it certainly appeared as most people’s #5 or #6. And then there’s Spotlight. Kind Spotlight. Simple, unflashy Spotlight. The film about good people doing good things against evil and corruption in the world. It’s a film that makes people want to cheer, and helps them find comfort in their sadness. Sure, it wasn’t special, but it was a film where everyone could walk out thinking, That was good. I enjoyed that, whether they were your 70-year-old grandmother or your edgy teenage cousin. While it wasn’t leading the way after the first ballot, surely most people would put it down as their #2, #3, or #4 choice. And thus, despite only winning one other Oscar the entire night – a first since Grand Hotel in 1932 – Spotlight ended up winning Best Picture. It is the prime example of the preferential ballot.

By now, you should have a fairly strong grasp on the concept of the preferential ballot. However, there may be other questions you’re asking. Most likely, “What if the race is between two well-liked films? And even if it’s not, how do I know what film will have the edge in terms of #2 votes?” Well, for those of you asking this question, I would like to present to you the Last Place Theory. Created (I believe) by Daniel Joyaux, the Last Place Theory has helped him predict both Spotlight and Moonlight against all the odds. Essentially, the Last Place Theory posits that predicting the preferential ballot is not just about finding the most-liked film, it’s about figuring out which film will get the push earliest on in the recounts. Using my previous example with Films A-H, the best indicator of Film B’s success is to look at Films F-H. By figuring out what they are like, and who would vote for them, you can figure out which film is likely to end up getting their #2 votes. Let’s use the real world example of 2016, the very last Oscar race. As a reminder, here are last year’s nominees, in the order they most likely placed on ballots:

  • La La Land
  • Moonlight
  • Manchester By The Sea
  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • Fences
  • Lion

Based on its 14 nominations, La La Land was very clearly the frontrunner going into the Best Picture race. Most likely, it had the most votes after the first round. However, the question remains: what would those bottom films vote as their #2. Based on a lack of nominations, as well as a lack of support or word-of-mouth within the industry, the last place recipients in the first round were likely Lion, Fences, and Hidden Figures. Now, when you look at those films – two of them about the African-American experience and the third a heart-tugger about family and race – which film do you think they were most likely to pick as their #2, or #3? The retro-musical with literally the whitest actors in history, or the film that took all the themes inside those three films and blew them up to epic proportion? Most likely the latter. Meanwhile, La La Land was facing heavy backlash over its hype and the whole “jazz” thing. It was most likely getting #5 and #6 votes. The people that were voting it #2 and #3 were most likely the older people that liked throwback genre films, like Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge. Unfortunately, both films were highly beloved in the industry, nominated in several categories and enjoyed by many. Those films weren’t going out until the very end, well past Moonlight’s clinching of Best Picture. Using this Last Place Theory, you can determine people’s opinions, and therefore their ballots, ultimately cracking the preferential ballot.

Which brings us to the meat of this article: what this all means for this year’s Oscars. Well, let’s start with the basics: there are five films with a reasonable shot at Best Picture this year: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Get Out, Lady Bird, and Dunkirk. The other nominees are Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, and The Post. Based on the previous awards shows – the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice, the BAFTAs, and the SAG Awards – the two frontrunners are The Shape of Water and Three Billboards. In order to narrow down this race, I ran my own personal version of the preferential ballot, comparing 25 ballots from Facebook and Twitter. The results are pretty interesting. The first thing you’ll notice – which I will get to in a minute – is that Three Billboards goes out fairly early, while The Shape of Water holds on for a long time before going out. The final results leave Get Out and Lady Bird in a virtual tie (neither reached 51%), with Dunkirk placing a very high third. Other pundits online have run a similar test and found the same thing. Now, why should I eliminate The Shape of Water and Three Billboards? Simple: because they are frontrunners. Three Billboards will certainly receive a handful of first place votes, but its messy nature, vulgar dialogue, and the fact that its take on race has left a foul taste in the mouth of people from all walks of life tells me that it will end up as a lot of people’s #8 or #9 – just like it was in my survey. Unless the film wins outright on the first vote (a full 51%), it likely won’t win – and in this tough a year, that’s highly unlikely, even with the support of the Brits and of the Actors. Now, as for The Shape of Water, it has a lot going for it – the critics love it, it has the most nominations, and it has a real La La Land vibe. Unfortunately, there’s a lot working against it. The Actors (the largest branch of the Academy) didn’t nominate it for Best Ensemble, their highest award. The older voters will have issues with the whole “Sexy Fish Man” angle. And due to its own hype, a lot of people are emerging disappointed enough to vote it #5 or #6 (where it landed on most of my ballots). While I believe it will be in first after the initial round, The Shape of Water will fall somewhere along the line.

This leaves me with three films: Get Out, Dunkirk, and Lady Bird. Each film has a great deal of cons – Dunkirk hasn’t won anything all season and wasn’t nominated for Best Ensemble, Lady Bird has only won the Golden Globe and wasn’t nominated for any tech awards, and Get Out has only won the WGA and has no tech nominations. However, they do have several great traits that nobody else has: all three are well-liked with few haters, and in the case of Get Out and Lady Bird, they are the only two films to receive all the important nominations – SAG, Critics, Globes, DGA, National Board of Review, and so on. So how to come to a conclusion in this category? Well, let’s start with the basics: Lady Bird hasn’t won a single major prize so far, despite being consistently nominated. So while it feels like the “safest” choice of the bunch, and while it meets all of the requirements (as I said, it placed highly in my straw poll), I must eliminate it along with the others. This leaves a two-way race, the one determined by any student of the preferential ballot: Get Out vs. Dunkirk. If you use the Last Place Theory, then the results seem pretty clear. With The Post and Darkest Hour in last place, the votes likely go to Dunkirk, giving it the edge going into the finals. However, there are a few factors I can’t get over. First, Dunkirk hasn’t found support anywhere this season. Not even the Brits gave it a major win. Second, it didn’t win on my preferential ballot. That honor went to Get Out. I’ve seen a lot of preferential ballots throughout the last few seasons. Even when things were heavily leaning The Revenant and La La Land, they still indicated support for Spotlight and Moonlight. With this knowledge, with these tests, and despite the fact that no film like this has ever won Best Picture before, or at least not since Silence of the Lambs, I must go with my gut on this and predict Get Out. This could change in the coming weeks – I might go with my head and switch to Dunkirk, or maybe I’ll go with my heart and switch to Lady Bird. However, if you use the preferential ballot to run the numbers, you’ll know that despite the term “frontrunner” being thrown around about a few other films, one of these three will end up winning Best Picture.

So that’s the Preferential Ballot. Hopefully you now have a better understanding of this weird system that has forever changed the way the Oscar votes are cast, and hopefully I did a decent job of providing a written version of this overly complicated system. Do you have any questions about the system? Any predictions for the upcoming race, or comments about my experiment? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

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