Best Picture Nominations: Two Modest Proposals for the Academy

Can we get some Oscar love for the 'Wonder Woman's of the world?The Academy Awards’ process for choosing its Best Picture nominees isn’t broken, but it could easily be better. A system that has room for Amour alongside Argo and Brooklyn next to Mad Max: Fury Road is doing something right, even when widely acknowledged stinkers also get nominated.

But the Academy could enact two reforms — one simple, one more fraught — that would address some shortcomings.

Before getting into my proposals, some assumptions:

• The Academy wants the Oscars to be relevant.

• Oscar relevance can be most easily measured by the number of ceremony viewers.

• There is some correlation between the collective box office of Best Picture-nominated films and the number of Oscar-ceremony viewers.

• In each of the past five years, the box office for Best Picture-nominated movies has been at least roughly 20-percent lower than in 2012.

• The number of viewers for the Oscar telecast has declined in each of the three years since the ceremony for 2013 movies.

• The nomination results are dictated by three factors: Academy membership, the tastes of the Academy membership, and the process for choosing Best Picture nominees.

• The Academy has already implemented changes to make its membership more diverse.

• The system for picking a slate for Best Picture should encourage honest, heartfelt voting. In other words, the Academy should use a nominating process in which members’ actual preferences are reflected on their ballots.

• The nominating process as it stands today is not sacred. The Academy changed the Best Picture nominating rules for 2009 movies, and the current system was in place starting with the 2011 movie year.

• In the interest of making itself more relevant, the Academy can again change its Best Picture nominating process with the goal of slates with broader appeal — meaning, bluntly, with more movies that more people saw.

Admittedly, there is a danger in altering rules toward a desired result, as we’ve seen with the gerrymandering of political boundaries and voting restrictions designed to exclude certain populations.

But there’s little potential for harm here. First, the Academy Awards are just not important in the real world. Second, the changes I’m proposing would likely affect only the margins of the Best Picture race. Third, the Academy can use past balloting to ensure, with substantial confidence, that any reforms don’t dramatically diminish the contest for its biggest prize.

Proposal One: Mandate 10 Best Picture nominees.

In the seven years of the current rules, each Best Picture slate has had either eight or nine nominees. This is, quite simply, a missed opportunity. There were nine combined empty slots in those years, which were nine unused chances to attract passionate fans of films that ultimately weren’t nominated. There’s no rational argument that any given year doesn’t produce at least 10 “great” movies that open in the United States. And, no matter your tastes or the number of nominees, the Academy has never been particularly good at figuring out “great,” so who cares if an(other) unworthy flick makes the cut?

Looking at the lists of Producers Guild of America nominations for Best Picture over the past seven years, you get a sense of what might have been for the Oscars: Bridesmaids (2011, $169 million in domestic box office), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, $102 million), Skyfall (2012, $304 million), Gone Girl (2014, $167 million), Straight Outta Compton, (2015, $161 million), Deadpool (2016, $363 million), and Wonder Woman (2017, $412 million). Requiring 10 Best Picture nominees wouldn’t necessarily have put any of these films in the field, but it certainly would have boosted their chances.

Implementing this rule would require the Academy to either adjust its Best Picture thresholds, or revert to the nominating process it used for the 2009 and 2010 movie years (in which members could vote for up to 10 movies instead of the current five), or adopt a new tabulation system. May I humbly suggest ... .

Proposal Two: Increase the maximum number of movies each member can vote for to 10, and change the current “instant runoff” tabulation system into a weighted point system encompassing each voter’s full ballot.

This might seem like two proposals, but they go hand-in-hand. How ballots are tabulated basically dictates how many choices from each member are relevant to the results. In the current system, there’s no need to submit more than five movies. In my system, five votes would be fine, but 10 would be better.

To understand how my proposal would work compared to the status quo, you don’t need to fully comprehend the complicated system the Academy presently uses to nominate its slate for Best Picture, but it’s important to understand three features:

• Academy voters rank up to five movies when nominating Best Picture.

• In the final tabulation, members get only one vote.

• That vote could either go to one movie, or it could be divided among two movies via the “surplus” rule.

There are several problems with this system.

On the minor side, it’s unfair that some people have their vote divided between two favorites while the remaining members only get one pick.

More fundamentally, the premise of selecting a slate of up to 10 movies using only one or two choices from each member’s ballot seems too narrow. The current nominating process is designed to reward each voter’s “passion” for one or two movies, and as a result it neglects the breadth of each nomination ballot. Votes for four or three movies on each ballot aren’t even counted.

On a more technical level, the Academy’s process for Best Picture nominations is a redundant misuse of the instant-runoff system — a tabulation approach that makes the most sense as a way to achieve a result without a second round of voting. But, of course, the Oscars have a second round of voting — the actual runoff election among the Best Picture nominees to determine what movie actually wins the prize.

Finally, the convoluted current system defies understanding for the average person. If you try to describe what any given group of Best Picture nominees actually represents, you’d tie yourself into knots: They’re the movies that the largest number of people made their top pick, except when they were the second or third or fourth pick because the movies above them didn’t make the cut, and except when one movie performed so well that a portion of each of its votes went to another movie ... . Given that the Academy’s process is not and will never be transparent, it doesn’t necessarily need to be simple, but it should be simpler.

Because of those faults, I propose the weighted point system. Each voter can rank up to 10 movies, with the first-place choice getting 10 points, the second-place choice getting nine points, and so forth. The 10 movies with the most votes get Best Picture nominations.

The middle and lower slots on the ballot are going to be where voters feel freer to indulge their idiosyncratic tastes and reward box-office winners that perhaps fall a bit short of what conventional wisdom considers a Best Picture contender. Those votes deserve to be counted.

Let’s look at four theoretical movies as an example, with a pool of 10 voters.

Movie A is divisive or little-seen. Two voters picked it as the best of the year, two put it sixth, two ranked it 10th, and four left it off their ballots. It gets 32 points.

Movie B is universally loved but not anybody’s favorite. All 10 voters ranked it fourth, earning it 70 points.

Movie C is also universally loved, and most people liked it better than movie B. Four people ranked it second, three put it third, and three listed it fifth, earning it 78 points.

Movie D got two votes each for first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth place, giving it 60 points.

In the current system, Movie A and Movie D would be guaranteed Best Picture nominees. Movie C would be more likely to be a Best Picture nominee than Movie B, but its fate would depend on the reapportionment of first-place votes. Movie B would likely be left out in the cold.

In my system, Movie C would be the most likely among these options to get a Best Picture nomination, and Movie B would not be far behind. Movie D has a pretty good shot, and Movie A would probably be left out.

Movie A might be something along the lines of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (divisive, with a 46 rating on Metacritic) or Amour (little-seen, with a domestic box office of less than $7 million). For Movie B, think of a Best Picture-snubbed blockbuster such as The Dark Knight or Wonder Woman. Movie C is likely on the charmed side of that equation, so perhaps Fury Road. And for Movie D, maybe Get Out, given that it’s universally admired but with politics that are more complicated and pointed than the Academy typically favors.

One could expand my crude example as much as one wants, but it should serve to illustrate how different tabulation systems generate different results. The point is that Movie B absolutely deserves to be in the Best Picture conversation and almost certainly isn’t most years, even though everybody agrees it’s among the top five movies of the year.

One downside to my proposal is that it would introduce an element of strategic punitive voting — of voters leaving movies (such as Movie A) off the ballot in hopes of denying them a nomination. Another is that seemingly-from-left-field nominees such as Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild would be less likely than under the current system.

So perhaps you think that Movie A should get a nomination over Movie B, or that it shouldn’t be punished for being left off four ballots, or at the least that its first-place votes should carry greater weight. Fine. I’m not averse to even more points for higher ballot positions, and I allow that there are plenty of variations or hybrid systems the Academy could adopt.

For example, it would be easy to reserve the first five (or three, or seven) Best Picture nominations for the movies that got the most first-place votes, period, without reallocating any votes. The remaining slots would go to the movies with the highest point totals that weren’t among the first batch of nominees.

Another possibility would be to keep the current tabulation system and fill the “empty” slots with the yet-unnominated movies with the most points.

The beautiful thing is that the Academy and its accounting firm could come up with a variety of different voting and tabulation systems and test them using past nomination votes. What would each slate of Best Picture nominees look like under options one, two, and three? How do they compare to the lists of movies that were actually nominated? Do some options have obvious problems in terms of excluding passionately loved movies in favor of movies that were well-liked but not loved?

And then the Academy could choose a system whose results align with whatever aims for relevance it has.

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