Numlock Awards: Oscar Front-runners and ranked choice voting

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

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Congratulations, we’ve reached the point of the year where a perfectly sensible Oscar forecasting column becomes a teardown of ranked-choice voting and an exploration of why Best Picture is weird. But before we get to the part that makes people stop reading emails, let’s go through the state of the race.

The Front-runners

Last night Sam Mendes won the Directors Guild Award for 1917, meaning that we have front-runners for both Best Picture and Best Director.

Director is simple: it’s Mendes. He won the DGA, Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, plenty of local critics’ prizes, and the only remaining question is the BAFTA.

Given that he directed 1917, a movie from a British director and British cinematographer starring British actors, about British soldiers sent by British generals to save British lives on the British front of WWI, a conflict that to some notoriety involved Britain, something tells me he’s got a shot with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Best Picture is another matter and less of a sealed deal, but after wins at the Producers Guild and Directors Guild it’s impossible to say that anything but 1917 is the front-runner. The win at Screen Actors Guild is great for Parasite, but SAG has been lagging lately while the PGA has been in lockstep with the Academy.

This chart is kind of slapped together quickly but here’s a sense of where we’re at based on points and wins:

The acting prizes are pretty much set. The front-runners — Laura Dern (Best Supporting Actress, Marriage Story), Brad Pitt (Best Supporting Actor, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood), Renée Zellweger (Best Actress, Judy), and Joaquin Phoenix (Best Actor, Joker) — have all won the Globe, the Critics’ Choice and the SAG award, without a miss among them. Their leads in their categories won’t go away regardless of how BAFTA shakes out, and they’ll be our front-runners heading in.

But Best Picture is unique in that it’s selected by ranked-choice voting. This week, I want to attack a key question:

How is the ranked choice voting method of Best Picture going to complicate my life this year?

Right now, there are three movies with something approaching an argument for hitting Best Picture, based on the previous votes of the people who select the Oscar winners and the people who tend to shape those opinions: Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Parasite, and 1917.

When I talk to folks about how the Oscar voting shakes out, the question tends to be something like, “I know 1917 won a lot, but I really like Parasite and I think that a lot of the Academy probably also does, and I wonder if the weird voting thing that they do means that the movie I like has a shot?”

The gist is, yeah! Your movie totally has a shot! Last year, Green Book was a total underdog but still pulled it off. Invariably, more people liked Green Book than Roma, and that’s what happened. I’d venture that it’s entirely possible more people probably have Roma as their number one pick than had Green Book as their number one pick, hence Roma’s great award season run at shows that don’t do ranked-choice voting.

Ranked choice is a process where people rank the Oscar movies on their ballot. The votes are all counted up, and if one movie has more than 50 percent of votes, that movie wins. If a movie doesn’t have 50 percent of votes, all the ballots that voted for the movie with the lowest votes get moved to their second choice. Then the process repeats until some movie breaks 50 percent.

The objective is to find the film most amenable to the largest number of people. As a result, it’s nice but not all that critical to get a massive pile of #1 rankings. Realistically, a nine-nominee field is not getting settled on the first ballot. What competitive movies need is to simply be ranked better than their top rivals. Last year, the fact is that a majority of the Academy ranked Green Book above Roma. It’s that simple.

That’s why the Oscar campaign is so compelling, because inherently everything matters. Joaquin Phoenix comes off “tired and emotional” at the Globes? That genuinely could diminish Joker’s shot if it makes it someone’s fourth choice rather than their third. Joaquin Phoenix comes off as charming and grateful at the SAG awards? Turn that around. The winner is decided not by the most committed but in the margins.

Here’s something potentially interesting I found for this year, though.

I decided to build a hypothetical 10-nominee Oscar field — a front-runner, a close runner up, two above-average competitive films, four nominees that aren’t super competitive, and two films that are just happy to be there.

Then I ran a simulation to find out how often those films would be expected to win Best Picture given those perceived precursor weights. But then what I did was I started dropping nominees, to find out the odds of that front-runner in a ten-nominee field, a nine-nominee field, all the way down to a five-nominee field.

Here’s what I found:

Basically, smaller fields appear to advantage the obvious front-runners, while larger fields add in more chaos and (given the nature of the ranked-choice algorithm) effectively sap away win probability from the front-runner and distribute it to the long shots.

This year is a large field, so I’d argue it’s going to be an unclear decision going into Oscar night for this among other reasons we’ve been over in the past.

Lastly, here’s a fascinating sidebar. I took the values from all those simulations to see if it’s just that the front-runner was at the top of so many ballots. It’s absolutely not the case:

So when we talk about Oscar campaigning, it’s a bit of a eye-rolling situation. Generally, I think people will vote for what they like, and then fill in the rest as they choose, so why exactly are these things so predictive? Altogether, I think that’s because of the way that even a slight shift in appeal can make or break a movie when it comes to the Oscar voting math. In a nine-nominee year, the difference between the favorite and the middle of the pack can be 0.4 percentage points more number ones, but a thirty-point gap in win probability because that 0.4 percentage point gap in preference bubbles down throughout the rankings and is compounded like interest when considering the Academy as a whole rather than as an individual voter.

If making a really, really sweet speech when accepting your Golden Globe makes your movie 1% more likable, that can move the needle. Academy ballots are not anywhere near as uniform as you might expect, because voters are people and the winner is chosen not by the true believers who put a front-runner at the top of their ballot, but rather the camera operator who chatted with Richard Madden one time at a craft services table during A Promise and, as a result, moved 1917 from his fifth-place vote to his fourth-place vote because he’s such a nice kid.

That’s the entire point of Oscar campaigns. Be likable, be fun, be appealing, be seen, and even if you don’t win them on the first ballot try to be amenable enough to break through.