AMPAS has been using the preferential ballot method for choosing Best Picture since 2010’s ceremony, when they increased the number of nominees (at that point to ten). Quite a few average viewers are still in the dark as to how this process works and how it can affect the final outcome. Gone are the days of just tabulating who got the largest number of votes and naming a winner and with good reason. With ten nominees, there would be potential for a film to win by being a favorite of only 11% of the voting body. But there are issues in the new system as well that particularly come into play in a tight two horse race, like the one that we have this year between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, that is amplified when a third possibility is in the mix (American Hustle).
A quick rundown on the balloting process: each voter ranks the Best Picture nominees in order and all votes are distributed according to the film in the number 1 position. The film with the least votes is eliminated and the ballots that had been allocated to that film are redistributed to the film in the second place position. This process continues until a film has garnered more than 50% of the total number of ballots. Seems fair, right? This ensures that the winning film has the most support from the overall populous of the voting pool. So, last year with Argo such a clean cut favorite, this might have only taken 3-4 rounds before it hit the majority. However, the year before, without any clear frontrunner, it may have come to the last rounds, with different movies taking the lead at each turn before The Artist was finally declared the winner.
But this year, there is a strong possibility that two films will go neck and neck into the final round of voting. Which means that Best Picture will not be decided by those who loved Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, but by two groups. First up are the people who listed them last on their ballots (after the all other films are eliminated, the final deciding factor could be if Gravity was placed 8th in more remaining ballots than 12 Years). Alternately, if American Hustle makes a strong enough showing in the first round, it will prevent there being a majority until the very final round, which means it’s the reallocation of American Hustle votes that would tip the balance. So, of people who preferred American Hustle, did more rank 12 Years higher than Gravity? Is your head spinning yet?
There seem to be some inherent flaws in this process, but ones that could be worked out. If it were up to me (why is it never up to me?!), I would institute some minor changes that would give greater weight to those films ranked higher on each ballot. My first option would keep the voting structure intact, but have the voters choose only their top 3-5 films. This would mean more films would be eliminated earlier in the process and focus the attention on those films that garnered the most devotion rather than having people’s fifth or sixth choices be deciding factors. As another option, the process would stay similar, but at each level, the vote would get a slightly less weight. For example, a ballot being redistributed to its second place vote would give that film 0.9% of a vote, but a ballot being redistributed to its third place vote would only account for 0.8% of a vote and so on. The lower the film is listed on your ballot, therefore, it gets less weight in the final tally.
But enough of my dream world—what does this mean for Sunday’s results? Let’s start with why I’m envisioning it only coming down to these two films. I don’t think that American Hustle will pose an upset or “split the vote.” With 12 Years winning best film and Gravity winning best British film at the BAFTAs after the two films tied at the Producer’s Guild Awards (and there is a lot of overlap between these two bodies and the Academy), it seems unlikely, though certainly not impossible, that it would have enough steam to be ranked higher than both of the frontrunners on enough ballots. But if those films do stay in line through much of the tallying process, American Hustle only needs to hold onto 10-15% of the vote to keep a majority from being established until the very last round.
So, here’s why despite being the favored to win, despite being predicted by experts and editors to win, there’s a possibility that 12 Years a Slave will not win the Oscar. Trying to get into the heads of the people that would choose American Hustle as the best picture of the year, I think they would rank Gravity higher, wherever those two films appear on their ballots. And that may be what it comes down to in the end.