How does a movie win a best picture Oscar? There’s a method to the voting madness

The academy’s switch to a new voting system for best picture seems to still be confusing some members.


How does a movie win the Oscar for best picture? Since 2009, when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences expanded the number of nominees in what’s typically the night’s final category, it’s been decided by a process known as the preferential ballot.

Here’s an explanation of how the academy’s best picture voting process works, as previously reported by The Times’ awards columnist, Glenn Whipp.

While all academy members get to vote on all the categories listed on each year’s final ballot of nominees, best picture is the only category where voting members from all 17 branches of the academy get to set those nominations.


Then, after the best picture nominees are set — for 2022, they are “Belfast,” “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car,” “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog” and “West Side Story” — the preferential ballot comes into play.

From ‘Don’t Look Up’ to ‘Drive My Car,’ here’s how Times film critic Justin Chang would vote if he had one of the academy’s preferential ballots. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t.)

Feb. 8, 2022

Also called instant-runoff voting and ranked-choice voting, the preferential ballot is an electoral system used in places around the world — including in New York City — for elections with more than two candidates. Each voter ranks his or her choices, rather than choosing only one to be the winner.

The thinking behind the system is to ensure that each ballot will have maximum influence, putting a premium on the choices that voters rank near the top.

For the Oscars, if an academy member put Movie A first and Movie A gets knocked out of the running early for lack of other votes (assuming no movie won a majority), that member’s ballot continues to have an effect on the outcome. If the member has Movie B ranked second, that ballot’s vote then goes to Movie B until one of three things happens: Movie B accumulates 50% of the vote and wins, another movie crosses the 50% threshold and wins, or Movie B is also eliminated. And the cycle continues — Movies C through J, anyone? — until one of this year’s 10 nominees crosses that 50% threshold and claims the prize.

Depending on how long it takes to determine a winner, that academy member’s one vote could ultimately transfer to a number of different movies before ultimately landing in its final resting place.

The Oscars are in the midst of an identity crisis as they’re saddled with an impossible task of saving movie culture.

March 25, 2022

And that’s how and why the Oscars’ best picture winner sometimes isn’t the movie that is most passionately loved. Often, it’s the film that is most generally liked — or, for those glass-half-empty types, the picture that is least disliked.


For a better explanation of preferential voting — with narration and animation, no less — scroll back up and watch the video embedded above.