On Tuesday, the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA) released their nominations for best motion picture of the year. These are looked upon, given their impressive track record, with considerable interest. But they’re also going to be the first industry preferential ballot of the 2016-2017 season. This year’s race for Best Picture is looking very much like La La Land’s to lose; how well it or anything else does, will come down to its ability to win these types of ballots.
But before that, let’s look back at the 2015-2016 Oscar race. It was clearly an unusual one; however, it’s the kind of scenario that really highlights the issues that a preferential ballot with a weak front-runner can bring about and what to consider for future races. The preferential ballot is a far more complex animal than it might appear. There was a lot of discussion about the impact of this on the outcomes last February, but perhaps due to not being familiar with these ballots, there were some important details that were missed by pundits. As an Australian, where preferential ballots are used in elections, I’ve seen some of the weird outcomes that these ballots can deliver.
Many took The Revenant’s DGA and BAFTA wins as a clear sign that it was going to get carried to Best Picture. I was one who bought into that idea. However, a preferential ballot offers a cavalcade of complications that need to be considered and in hindsight, it’s clear that The Revenant was terribly vulnerable and what lessons there are for this forthcoming and, indeed, every Best Picture race as long as this voting system is retained.
The key point to remember is that preferential ballots reward respect over passion.
A basic rule about these ballots is that their function is to ensure that if there isn’t an outright winner that the option most liked will win in the end. At the Oscars, a strong front-runner will be fine, momentum and broad appeal will look after it. When these ballots matter is when there is no clear favorite or a very weak front-runner.
A film with a passionate following that does well in the first preference (or primary) vote, but has limited appeal outside of its fan base, might win the most votes. However, there might be other options which may be weaker, but competitive, on primary votes, but have stronger overall support. I’ll put this into the context of elections (still a touchy subject). In a traditional first-past-the-post race, such as in the United States, the option with the most votes wins, no matter how few. In that system, let’s say you get 35% of the vote, if that’s the highest number, you’ve won. In a situation where 65% of the voters have gone with something else as their first choice, with a preferential system, you’ll need to find another 15% +1 vote in order to win. That might not seem terribly difficult, but you then need to be sure that you’ve got enough support from the preferences of other candidates. Are their voters more likely to support you or one of your rivals? With whom are you competing for the same voter’s preferences? In the case of the Oscars, are they into ensemble pieces, serious dramas or epics? Do you expect those other films to do well enough in their primary votes for strong second preferences to hurt you and are you confident of a strong flow of preferences from other voters? This process adds another level of political strategy into the Oscars, as if the dirty tricks and campaigning wasn’t enough.
I’ve seen elections where candidate A with 38% of the primary vote was beaten by candidate B with 23% because the candidate A has maxed out their support in their primary votes but candidate B was ‘preferred’ over candidate A by the supporters of the other candidates. This gets even more complicated where there is more than one viable alternative and more dangerous for a weaker front-runner.
This is what I believe happened to The Revenant. If you look at where it did win (outside of the Golden Globes, obviously) it won in a field of five nominations and a first-past-the-post ballot (BAFTA and DGA), if you combine that with the film’s large nomination haul, and Iñárritu’s rare back-back win, it tells you that The Revenant probably had the highest primary vote. But with eight nominees, including films that were clearly far more popular with AMPAS in hindsight than was originally thought (Mad Max: Fury Road and Room), you’d have to think that unless The Revenant did extremely well and was only relying on scraps from other films to get over the line, then it was likely in a lot of trouble.
What about PGA? I hear you say. Yes, PGA was very telling, but not for the reasons most think. The fact that The Revenant didn’t win PGA, in hindsight, was, indeed, a sign that it wasn’t going to win Best Picture. Not because of the PGA’s track record, but because it was a sign that a large voting body, when given the chance, was not able to look to it as a broad consensus choice. In that case what did win was almost immaterial. Both The Big Short and Spotlight fit the bill of consensus choices. The upside for La La Land in this year’s contest, is that it’s almost the dictionary definition of a consensus choice. So, the only prediction I will make is that should La La Land lose the PGA, there should be more red flags flying at Lionsgate than at a May Day Parade in Red Square.
PGA had ten nominees and although only Room missed PGA to turn up in Best Picture, you have to consider that those additional nominees and the excluded film would have impacted initial vote counts, rankings, and subsequent preference flows. The closer the race, the more important those initial placements and preference flows are. The Big Short might have had a lot of number 2 votes, but that doesn’t mean that in a race with different voters and fewer competitors that Spotlight wouldn’t have been stronger. The very nature of preferential ballots in a closely contested race means a consensus will emerge, but it doesn’t guarantee the same consensus will emerge.
Key to this, is to remember that when people are saying “well, xxx should get a lot of number 2 votes”, that in a preferential voting system having a lot of number 2 votes is a great thing, but unless you’ve got enough number 1 votes to not be excluded before those preferences matter… then it’s for naught.
I’ve gone on a bit about the how of the preferential ballot, but what is likely far more important if you’re reading this is, is what this all means. Well, we’ve already started to see signs of how a preferential ballot impacts the Oscar race and that has impacts into the future.
The first, and most important point, is that this means that the Best Picture race and the other categories need to be analysed separately from now on. This doesn’t mean, as we’ve seen with The King’s Speech, Birdman, The Hurt Locker or The Artist, that sweeps or mini-sweeps are over. It is possible for a film to win multiple categories and be popular enough to win Best Picture. A strong front-runner will still likely win Picture and Director and that will still be the norm. However, the new reality is that being a front-runner with passionate backing is not enough to get Best Picture. As I wrote earlier, getting 35% in a field of 8 or 9 is great, and would have won based on the old system, but if you’ve maxed out your votes and there are more broadly popular options, then you’ve probably lost. Also, just as an aside, I think we can now put to bed any suggestions that Birdman was divisive – it won PGA, DGA, SAG ensemble AND managed to get to at least 50% of the vote in a field of eight, it was plenty popular.
An extension of this issue is to consider is that the branches will matter and their idiosyncrasies will come into focus. It is one way to understand how you end up with massive tech sweeps and then it gets beaten at the end by more traditional Oscar fare (Gravity and 12 Years a Slave). AMPAS has always had a bias against sci-fi and fantasy films (Return of the King being an undeniable exception) and it’s clear that its group-think, particularly among its largest branches, still does. It is “easy” for a film with strong support to get tech sweeps, even up to Director. But when the dynamic shifts to a collective decision on the “best” picture, it won’t be enough. I would expect into the future, if this system is retained, to see more Picture/Director splits, as well as increased likelihood of sweeps and mini-sweeps that do not include Best Picture. It’s clear the Academy does add extra weight to their thinking on this particular award (*cough*Crash*cough*) the preferential ballot is basically a way to enshrine that thinking, by rewarding the more conventional and “important” films with the top prize, even if their component parts were not considered worthy. If you want an answer as to how Spotlight beat The Big Short in this preferential ballot (let alone The Revenant), look to this dynamic – winning one preferential ballot doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the next one, different voters, different agendas, different aesthetics will impact the decision of a group this size.
The second and something to consider going forward is that the style of campaigning is going to change. We’re used to the strategies that distributors have used in the past, it’s part of the deal. But much like many pundits, the studios have yet to catch up to what the preferential ballot means for Best Picture. Keeping the regular FYCs is fine for Director, Actor or Make Up and Hair, but since you now have to negotiate this voting system for Picture (taking the weight the Academy places on it into account), there will need to be targeted campaigns to receive not only the number 1 votes, but also high preferences. There are also likely to be campaigns that target specific films’ supporters (“Hey there, The Martian voter! You love films about survival against the odds helmed by a visionary director? Consider The Revenant for your #2 vote!”). In a sweep or dominated year, this won’t matter much, but in a year we’ve just seen, the sophistication and strategy of the campaigns are going to have to improve.
The preferential ballot for Best Picture is not just an administrative change; it has shifted the whole dynamic of the Oscar race. Preferential ballots reward the safe and conventional over the ground-breaking and challenging and it will impact the way studios campaign. This 15-16 race was a very strange one, so don’t expect it to be the norm, but it shows that in years without a clear front-runner, the job/game of predicting the Oscars are now much, much harder.