Since the expansion of the Best Picture category, the Oscar voting system has been a little confusing. Let’s clear it up AND rank the 2021 Best Picture nominees to show you how it works.
How the Oscar voting system works
Let’s start with the nomination process. It’s fairly simple.
The individual categories are nominated by the Academy members that make up their branch. Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, etc, etc. When it comes to the Best Picture category, all Academy members are eligible to select the nominees.
According to the Oscars website, all nominations are counted and tabulated by the firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The nominations are then announced live at a televised press conference. So, the voting members of the Academy find out who they nominated at the same time the public does.
Okay, so, now that we have nominees, it’s time to talk about the final ballots. All categories are included on all ballots, so the entire voting body is involved in the final vote tabulations. With the exception of the Best Picture category, the Oscar voting system is a pretty straightforward process. The movie, artist, or technician nominated that gets the majority of the votes is declared the winner. The Best Picture voting process is a little different.
In 2009, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to expand the Best Picture category to include more than 5 nominees, they switched to a preferential ballot system. Here’s a quick rundown of how that process works.
The purpose of the preferential ballot is to award Best Picture to the film with the broadest support, not just the one that is the favorite of the majority like all the other categories. It’s not a perfect system, but it does make it possible to include more films in the Best Picture category.
Each voting Academy member is asked to rank the Best Picture nominees from best to worst. The 2021 Best Picture category has eight nominees, so the rankings would be from 1-8. Once all final ballots have been submitted, the same accounting firm that works with the nomination process, PricewaterhouseCoopers, tabulates the results.
They start by collecting everyone’s first place ranked film. If one film gets more than 50% of the vote, that film wins Best Picture. Since that is unlikely with a field of 8 films, if no film gets more than 50%, then they look at which film got the fewest number of first place rankings and eliminated it from the running.
The ballots that chose that eliminated film for first place then have their second place film included in the new tabulation. Their second choices are now included as their selection for the winner, and the results are re-tabulated with these new votes and the 7 remaining nominees. If no film recieves 50% of the vote this time, the new last ranked film from the remaining 7 nominees is then eliminated and those ballots have their next choice included as their new vote. This process repeats and repeats until one film gets more than 50% of the votes.
Once one film crosses that 50% threshold, we then have that year’s Best Picture winner.
So, if you had a little trouble following that general explanation of the Oscar voting system, consider the 2021 Best Picture nominees as an example. Here’s how I would rank them if I were a voting member of the Academy (in my very wildest dreams).
Ranking the 2021 Best Picture Oscar nominees
1. ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’
Out of all the films this year, this is the one that I just found myself being drawn back to time and time again. I can admit a little of my own bias due to my being a fan of all things Aaron Sorkin, but I really did just find Trial of the Chicago 7 the finest motion picture of 2020. It’s simultaneously my favorite and the 2021 Best Picture nominee I look forward most to re-watching.
2. ‘Promising Young Woman’
The next strongest film for me was Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. I can’t say that I plan to re-watch this one for years to come or anything, but I left this movie with its themes and issues resonating loudly in my head. I know for sure I haven’t used the phrase, “nice guy” since, at least without questioning everything I know about its meaning.
This is a film that I imagine can and will be quite helpful for many people for years and years to come. I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I hit play on The Father, but I never imagined it would move me to my soul and have me desperately wishing that I never have to confront Alzheimer’s or dementia as either a patient or a caregiver. It’s just an absolutely awful disease. Also, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman give two of the most moving performances of 2020, and I’m quite glad that both are, most deservedly, up for acting awards this year as well.
I know this film is getting a lot of talk as a frontrunner, and it is quite remarkable, but not enough for me to rank it higher than fourth, personally. I’m glad I watched it, though, because it opened my eyes to a whole different way of life that exists pretty much right under all of our noses. Frances McDormand is also quite good in the lead role here.
5. ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Another solid and moving film, Judas and the Black Messiah slipped a little further than I thought it would before seeing all eight of the nominated films. It may have something to do with the film’s length, but ultimately it’s just up against some strong competition this year. If there was an Oscar for acting ensemble, though, this film would definitely be at the top of the running for the award.
6. ‘The Sound of Metal’
The sound editing and mixing on this film is quite something, and I hope that if it doesn’t end up taking any of the big awards it gets recognition for what it does extremely well. It’s up for wins in a handful of possible categories, so we’ll see how it fares on Hollywood’s biggest night.
A movie I expected to be my favorite of the year dropped way farther in my rankings than I expected it to. I think my biggest issue with Minari was just trying to figure out what the filmmakers wanted me to walk away focused on. I was fine with the ending, although I can understand some people’s frustrations there, but there is just a lot going on in an otherwise simple and potentially heart-wrenching story. This movie did give me my front runner for Best Supporting Actress though in Yuh-jung Youn, and I wouldn’t be upset to see Steven Yeun take home a statuette, too.
Last and unfortunately least (for me) is Mank. I just did not see what other people saw in this film. I was somewhat impressed by Amanda Seyfried, but the rest of the story felt rather dull and lifeless to me, which I don’t think had anything to do with the choice to film in black and white.
Okay, now, when looking at the first round of final ballot tabulations, the accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers would look at my ballot and add my first place vote for Trial of the Chicago 7 to the results. If somehow Trial was the film that received the fewest number of first place rankings, they would then eliminate it from the running.
Since that eliminates my vote, they would then look to my second place ranking, Promising Young Woman and include that as my new vote. If there still wasn’t a film with 50% of the overall vote, they would continue to eliminate the last ranked film remaining and distribute those voters’ selections to their next highest ranked film until a winner is crowned.
I hope that helps you to understand how the Oscars voting system works. It’s not super complicated, but can get a little confusing. I’m glad that more peoples’ votes get counted toward a winner in this preferential balloting system, but I do acknowledge that it means that more generally palatable films will have a better chance at the big prize than more divisive or risk-taking films. We’ll see what it means for the 2021 Best Picture nominees during the live Oscars telecast on Sunday, April 25, 2021.