Some critics dismiss the Academy Awards as nothing more than a popularity contest amongst the Hollywood elite. Even if that were true, and it is not, the truth would be a little more complicated than that, thanks to the preferential ballot that the Academy uses for voting for the Best Picture Oscar.
Rather than just checking off the name of the film they are voting for as they would in every other category of the Academy Awards, Academy members are asked to rank the films in the Best Picture category according to preference. The ballots are then tabulated and if more than 50% of the voters rank one film at the top of their list, that film wins.
However, that is most likely never the case in the first round of voting. If no film gains the majority of votes needed, the film with the least amount of votes is removed from consideration and any ballots where that film was listed at number one, have their number two choice moved up to number one. The ballots are then recounted, again searching for a film that will garner more than 50% of first place rankings from the 8,469 voting members of the Academy. The process continues until a winner is found.
So for example, a hypothetical Academy member ranks Ford V Ferrari first on their ballot followed by Marriage Story at second and Little Women at third. But in the first round of vote tabulation, Ford V Ferrari gathers the least amount of first place rankings. The movie would be removed off of our hypothetical ballot and Marriage Story moved to the first position, Little Women to second and so on.
The upshot of this process is that if there is enough of a split between Academy voters over who they ranked first on their ballots while still agreeing in larger numbers on their second favorite film, that second place film could ultimately get pushed up to a first place position on enough ballots that it would win the Oscar. The purpose of this somewhat complicated process is to determine which of the Best Picture nominees is most generally liked. Or as the Los Angeles Times cheekily put it in 2018, “the picture that is liked the least.”
In some years, where the Best Picture category didn’t seem to be a lock for any one film, it is possible that a film with more second and third place rankings may have been able to slowly work its way to the
Last year, for example, the first round of voting may not have had Green Book getting the most first place rankings, but it was on enough voters’ ballots in the first, second and possibly third position to ultimately earn enough votes to win the category.
Exactly how this has played out over the years for each Academy Awards ceremony is unknown. PricewaterhouseCoopers keeps all the ballots for an undisclosed number of years before destroying them, but the actual vote totals are never released.