Awards season is one of the highlights of every year for me. As a creative individual, I love watching other (more successful) creatives getting rewarded for the fantastic work they do. The Academy Awards is my favorite. I wasn’t able to see many of the movies in time, though La La Land and Manchester by the Sea were two I did see and loved. Overall, the films created in 2016 were artistic, original, and (unlike last year) incredibly diverse. The Academy was set up for success this year. Until the Best Picture category.
I refuse to go to bed early for these things, not because I’m expecting to see anything crazy or dramatic, but because I love watching the acceptance speeches, even of the categories that so many people don’t care about, because these speeches are exclamations of utter joy for the fact that they have reached the peak of their career. So many people went to bed early. I don’t blame them; these things run late! And to many, La La Land had it in the bag. I knew it wasn’t a shoo-in win for La La Land. Actually, for my Oscars pool, I had Moonlight to win up until Friday night, when I actually saw La La Land and totally got some dust in my eye at the end of it. (Honestly, La La Land is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time and potentially might be one of my favorite movies. Weeks ago, I kept saying, “Ugh, I don’t want to see La La Land. I hate old-fashioned musicals.” It’s safe to say I ate my words, after that gag-worthy opening number, of course.)
Anyway, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read the wrong film name from the envelope in Steve Harvey circa 2016 fashion. Minutes into the La La Land producers’ speeches, it was announced that Moonlight was the real winner, that the wrong envelope was handed to Beatty and Dunaway. We all cringed and gasped as people who worked for their whole lives for this moment had to give up their statuettes to equally well-deserving individuals. I felt sorry for the producers of La La Land but also for the producers of Moonlight, because their moment, the highlights of their professional lives up to that point, were overshadowed by the drama.
So many people don’t understand how this happened, or even how the voting works, as I didn’t before I researched it for a project for my job. In an attempt to make this complicated yet fascinating process clear, I will break down the voting process, from the nominations to the winners, and everything in between.
The Academy Is…
And no, I’m not talking about that emo band we loved so much in the mid-2000s. We’re talking about the voters, the ones you can blame for any snubs and the ones you can thank for any deserved victories.
For the 2017 Academy Awards, there were over 6000 voting members of the Academy. Being a member of the Academy isn’t something any film buff can do; there is a long list of requirements, the first (and most simple) being that you need to be highly accomplished in the film industry. Each field of filmmaking involves different quantitative requirements. For example, an actor needs to have credited roles in at least 3 films, directors must have at least 2 screen credits to their names, designers must have been active in the field for a certain amount of time, etc. For anyone interested in learning more about the quantitative requirements, check out this link, which serves as a deep dive into membership requirements.
Prospective members can also gain sponsorship from 2 or more current members if they don’t meet the requirements of their fields. From here, they can be approved or denied by the Academy committee. The most fool-proof way to gain membership is by being nominated for an Oscar the year before, as nominees are instantly considered; however, that’s easier said than done!
PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Nomination Formula
Believe it or not, a not-so-glamorous process by PricewaterhouseCoopers is crucial to the execution of this glamorous evening. Accountants from PwC are the forces behind the organizational, analytical, “behind-the-scenes” — no pun intended — tasks in regard to the voting. They are in charge of mailing ballots of eligible nominees to members of the Academy, organizing the results of the nominees, distributing the list of nominees to the Academy members, and calculating the winners. PwC has been in charge of this complicated process for over 80 years. Despite the new technologies that have developed, PwC continues to do this process by hand in order to ensure for accurate results.
The first step from PwC is sending along the ballots of eligible nominees to Academy members. In order to be nominated, films need to meet certain specific requirements.
The film must be:
1. Over 40 minutes in length,
2. Screened for paid admission in Los Angeles County,
3. Screened for at least 7 straight days, and
4. Premiered in a theater, not online or on TV.
Once these ballots are sent, PwC waits for the members to return their votes.
For nominations, voting members are only allowed to vote within their field (i.e. actors can only nominate for acting categories, directors can only nominate for the Best Directing category, and so on). However, all members can vote in the Best Picture category. Members may choose up to 5 nominees, ranked in order from favorite to least favorite. Once the deadline has passed for members to submit their ballots, PwC gets back to work, crunching the numbers of the submitted ballots.
This is where the nomination formula comes into play. PwC uses the term “magic number” in the counting process to refer to the film that receives an amount of votes in each category that will automatically turn it into a definite nominee. The way this formula is broken out is:
total number of ballots ÷ total possible nominees + 1
How can we quantify this in clearer terms? Let’s use the Best Actor category as an example. Let’s pretend there are 600 ballots for each acting category. This category has 5 total possible nominees. Therefore, with the formula in mind, 600 ÷ 5 + 1 = 121. The magic number for this category, then, would be 121 votes. For instance, if Ryan Gosling received 125 votes during this process, then he would have reached the magic number and automatically been considered a nominee.
Excluding any nominees that reach the magic number, counting starts based on the voter’s first choice selection. If one potential nominee reaches the magic number (and is therefore considered a nominee), the votes for this individual are set aside. The possible nominees with the fewest first-choice votes are out of the running; PwC then redistributes these ballots and tallies the data based on these voters’ second-place choices. The ballots are redistributed until all spots are full.
The magic number is different in each category based on how large the group is. For instance, the total number of ballots for a design or technical field may be smaller than the number of ballots for directing and acting. While the magic number for acting categories may be 121 (as used in the example above), the magic number may be 18 votes for a category like Best Costume Design, or other categories with less Academy members in the field.
For a Best Picture nomination, the magic number during the first round of voting is quantified as 8.9% of the votes as first choice. This means that in the 2017 Academy Awards, a nominee only needed 549 members’ first-choice votes to reach the magic number. These are then redistributed until anywhere between 5 and 10 films are chosen.
A ballot can be void if the member votes the same individual or film more than once on the same ballot. If an Academy Member felt very strongly about Michelle Williams winning Best Supporting Actress, writing her name multiple times on the ballot would actually hurt her case, as it would have made this vote invalid. This is why the ranking system is extremely important; PwC and the Academy do not respond to anyone trying to tamper with the system.
And the Winner Is…
Once the nominees are chosen and announced, each member of the Academy is allowed to vote on each category, even the ones they were unable to vote in during the nomination vote. However, members are discouraged from voting in categories they don’t understand or categories in which they haven’t seen all of the nominated films. This time, each member chooses 1 vote for each category, rather than ranking them.
However, in the Best Picture category, members rank the choices from most deserving to least deserving. If a film has more than 50% of the first-place votes in the first round of voting, it is an automatic winner, but this is a very rare occurrence. The ballots are stacked according to which film is ranked #1. In the first round of counting this category, the stack with the least amount of votes gets eliminated, and the second-place votes are counted. This redistribution continues until there are 2 films left, in which case, the film with the largest stack is the winner. It is interesting to note that unless the 50% rarity happens, the Best Picture winner might not be the film with the most first-place votes; with this redistribution process, the film with the best median results tends to perform the best.
Since this process is simpler, it only takes PwC about 3 days to calculate the votes. For every category other than Best Picture, there is less of a process, making counting much easier and quicker. Only two senior accountants know the results before the live reveal. These accountants are responsible for preparing the envelopes, bringing them to the theater in suitcases, and handing the envelopes to the presenters backstage.
Is there a voter bias in the Academy Awards voting process? Of course there is, but they are biases that cannot be easily quantified and controlled. Many people believe that the outcomes of the Golden Globes have a large impact on the outcomes of the Oscars. The voting deadline for the Academy Awards occurs after the Golden Globes, so there is a chance that the Golden Globes may influence votes, but that is not something that can be controlled. In addition, voters’ biases based on their backgrounds and ages are a real issue in the Oscars. Voters are predominantly white, predominantly male, and the average age is in the 60s. However, the Academy Awards are making strides to create more diversity in regards to age, race, and gender.
Taking the Blame
As the ones responsible for the data and envelopes, PwC has taken full responsibility for the incident. As a backup (if an envelope is lost, for example), PwC makes duplicates of each of the envelopes. It appears that one of the PwC accountants handed the duplicate envelope for Best Actress to Beatty and Dunaway by accident. Yes, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway probably should have said something. I’m sure a stage tech or one of the accountants would have been happy to bring the correct envelope to the pair. That would have saved a lot of awkwardness. But they didn’t, and like many other instances on live television, things go wrong.
PwC has run the Oscars voting process for 83 years, but many are calling for someone else to take PwC’s place, which I personally think is wrong. The process that PwC mastered over the course of 80+ years, a process that has never had an issue before, was disrupted by human error on the part of the PwC accountant in charge of the Best Picture envelope, as well as Beatty and Dunaway for their passiveness in addressing the situation, which can happen when — you know — millions of people are watching your every move.
The Academy Awards will continue to be one of my favorite nights of television of all time, and this moment will go down in history and infamy.
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