Thinking "Outside the Vox" on Best Picture and Ranked Choice Voting

Posted by Rob Richie on February 20, 2017

Vox has a new video on the ranked choice voting system used to pick Best Picture. Its critic at large Todd VanDerWerff for years has ranted about the ranked choice voting system (RCV, also called "instant runoff" and "preferential voting") established for the category starting in 2009 when the Academy increased its number of Best Picture nominees up to 10. But his critique is misguided. Let's take a look at the facts to evaluate claims by VanDerWerff and his video collaborator Estelle Caswell that the system rewards mediocrity and that "bold, polarizing movies" are sidelined.

First, as a reminder, the Oscar for Best Picture will never go to a movie that doesn't have core support among people who like it best. That quality is important for getting nominated under the ranked choice system used to nominate Best Picture and all other major categories, and it's critically important to win with RCV. As explained in this video, RCV balances the values of having core support with the ability to hold up when compared to its top competitor head-to head. So you can't win if you're mediocre -- some people have to love you enough to not get eliminated early, and then you have to have majority support against the other top contender.

Second, let's look at what's actually happened. RCV was first used in 2009 when Hurt Locker upset the favored Avatar for Best Picture -- a result that doesn't fit the Vox thesis. Hurt Locker also won Best Director, decided by a plurality vote system that VanDerWerff prefers. Indeed, the Best Picture decided by RCV and Best Director decided by plurality have matched almost every year. That includes The King's Speech, which Vox highlights as an alleged example of mediocrity triumphing passion, along with The Artist and Birdman, the "movies about movies" that VanDerWerff suggests are only winning because of RCV.

So let's zero in on the different results. 

  • In 2012, Argo won Best Picture, but its director Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director, which went to Life of Pi's Ang Lee. The result surprised many, but Affleck had won Best Director from the Directors Guild, Argo won Best Picture from the Producers Guild of America, the Argo cast won at the Screen Actors Guild, and the screenplay won the Writer's Guild of America's best adapted screenplay. Mediocre doesn't seem to describe the film.
  • In 2013, 12 Years a Slave won best picture, while Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity. This difference doesn't fit the Vox thesis. 12 Years a Slave also won best film for BAFTA, the British counterpart to the Oscars, and was the#1 pick of 25 leading critics, more than any other film released in 2013.
  • In 2015, Spotlight won Best Picture, while The Revenant's Alejandro G. Iñárritu won Best Director. With its tough take on the role of the Catholic Church in handling child abuse, Spotlight was hardly a "safe" movie, and it also earned Best Picture from the New York Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics.

Bizarrely, VanDerWerff then goes back to 2005 to praise the upset win for Crash over Brokeback Mountain, whose director Ang Lee won Best Director. and was seen by many as the edgier, more impactful film.

So no, RCV isn't rewarding mediocrity. Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle this week has a different take, writing that "The academy used to like them big and stupid. But that has changed in recent years." He suggests that the old  plurality system in fact helped big movies that employed more people, and that adopting RCV meant "big, stupid moves stopped winning." 

But then LaSalle also goes off the deep end, suggesting that there's some advantage to burying top contenders in one's rankings, when in fact that's not true. He does conclude that La La Land will probably win on sunday, and if it does, mediocrioty won't be the reason. La La Land swept 7 categories at the Gold Globes, won best film at BAFTA and has a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations.

In sum, ranked choice voting is a smart system for the Oscars to use after increasing its number of Best Picture nominees. It's not rewarding mediocrity, but at least making sure that the "passion vote" is backed up with a majority vote. More broadly, American politics could use such a a system that delivers fair outcomes when we have more than two choices. For more on why Mainers voted to make their state the first to use ranked choice voting for all its state and federal elections in 2018, visit FairVoteMaine.org.

Want to cast a ranked ballot for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Actor? Visit our ranked choice voting Oscars polls.

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