For Geeks Only: How Oscar Voting Works

Pricewaterhouse Coopers staffers transport Oscar ballots in 2004.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers staffers transport Oscar ballots in 2004. Getty Images hide caption

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Now that the identity of Deep Throat has been revealed, the accounting of the Academy Awards may be the last set of true secrets in American life. The Oscars are frivolous, certainly; sometimes wrongheaded; undoubtedly behind the times and demonstrably very fallible. But beneath the glitz and pomp, the "for your consideration" ads and fretting about the host and the ratings, lies a procedure of singular rigor.

That procedure's nature is isn't always articulated. The Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with about 6,000 members, is the embodiment of a single industry: the movie industry. In late February or early March, it doles out awards for the work its members did the previous year. It is in this way a reflection of that industry, for better or worse; it is not directly based on box office, what the audience thinks, or even necessarily what's good for the industry or the annual TV show's ratings.

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The academy takes the endeavor seriously enough to protect that remarkably rigorous voting process. As you might know, actors nominate the performances of actors, directors the work of directors, and so on through most of the categories. (There are a few — documentaries, foreign films, certain technical slots — that do things a bit differently to deal with the demands of a particular medium.) Then the entire organization votes on those nominations. Contrast this, for example, with the way the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences handles the Grammys: There, an executive committee is allowed to overrule the membership's nominations, leaving it open to charges that manipulations occur to get higher-wattage stars onto the TV broadcast.

At this step, the group takes the time to count the votes right. The academy, through its accounting firm, now called PricewaterhouseCoopers, tabulates the ballots using what is called the "preferential voting" system. In each race, voters are able to list up to five choices in each race. The process is complicated and somewhat cumbersome, but it basically allows the accountants to calculate both the first round of voting and then any needed runoffs in a systematic and fair way. This allows dark horses to have a shot on the initial ballot, and consensus candidates to emerge as well, without voters worrying about wasting their votes at any step. Finally, the results are kept secret until Oscar night, when all the nominees are invited to come and let us watch their faces as the ultimate victor's name is read aloud, live on worldwide television.

I ask you: What is wrong with this process? It is what it purports to be — one industry feting itself — but unlike virtually every other awards show it zealously guards the voting to protect its members' opinions. There is one concern we might have: that the academy have an effective mechanism to keep its membership fluid, to allow new members in and gently slide moribund ones out. An older cast to the pictures that win awards can be discerned over time, but young-skewing and hipper movies are often compensated in the screenplay category (from Pulp Fiction to Lost in Translation). And even in the major awards, in recent years for every cheesy piece of studio fare (A Beautiful Mind, Chicago) there's a corresponding smaller or edgier winner (American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby).

And the actual totals remain undisclosed. The one recorded tie, in 1967, was duly announced and awards were given to both Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn. (In Steve Pond's engrossing recent book on the awards, The Big Show, he says that Streisand was ushered in as an academy member early; if Streisand voted for herself, he notes, this skirting of the rules gave her a statuette.) They have also said that certain races have been decided by one vote. Barring some secret record-keeping that is someday revealed, we'll never know if Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby edged out Martin Scorsese's The Aviator by 10 votes or 1,000.

The mystery, to me, is a meaningful one. As David Mamet, thinking of the accountants who used to be introduced from the stage of the awards, put it, "These two ritualistically dumpy men reassure us that, in spite of the vast rewards to be gained by irregularity, our interests as a people are being protected. There still may be a surprise winner; God and the Devil still exist."

Read the previous story in this series, Naomi Watts: Robbed!

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