As the 90th Academy Awards nears, I spoke by telephone with prominent entertainment journalist Steve Pond about the Motion Picture Academy’s use of ranked choice voting and how this year’s races for the major categories like Best Picture are shaping up. Pond is the awards editor at The Wrap, a leading entertainment news site, and is also the author of “The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards.”
The interview is the first of FairVote’s “Voices and Choices” podcasts. What follows is excerpt from that interview, which has been edited for clarity.
Rich Robinson: The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences not too long ago decided to use ranked choice voting to determine the Oscar winner for Best Picture. It's known by other names, preferential voting or single transferable vote... but I wanted to get your perspective on that decision by the Academy. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of when the Academy chose to go down this route?
Steve Pond: They've been using what they’ve always referred to as preferential voting for decades in the nominations round, as far back as the 1930s. But when they expanded from five to ten Best Picture nominees in 2009, they realized that that opened the possibility in a year where the vote could be divided. You could have a Best Picture winner that maybe only got 15 percent of the vote, and they were worried about that. So they decided to go with ranked choice to determine the final Best Picture winner, just to make sure that they would have a consensus choice, rather than a film that got more number one votes or anything else, but really didn't have the support of the entire membership.
Robinson: What have you heard from the membership, from the leadership at the Academy about how this has gone for the past few years?
Pond: I think one thing is, that most of the members don't really understand how it works. And it was always like that in the nominations round. Now, it's like in the Best Picture round you have members who don't want to know why they should have to rank all nine Best Picture nominees. There's some resistance that I think is largely based on ignorance.
But I think in general, the feeling is that it's a process that works. If you want a consensus choice as your Best Picture, then you know the Academy knows that this is the way to go whether or not all the members actually understand how it works. I think one of the things that it has led to is, in the eight years since they made the change, there have been four splits between Best Picture and Best Director which was very rare before that. So I think determining Best Picture in a different manner than they determine Best Director and all the other categories does lead to different results. I think that "Spotlight," Moonlight" and maybe "12 Years a Slave" were all films that might not have won if it was just, you know, vote for your favorite, but did craft a consensus under under ranked choice.
Robinson: Well one of the things we do see about ranked choice voting is it does open up these elections essentially to a wider range among the candidates running. I mean, our context obviously is with political candidates, but these essentially are elections, especially since there are campaigns for films to win Best Picture.
Pond: Yeah. It's a way to really say, OK what is the consensus favorite here. And it's led to this year, I think if it wasn't for ranked choice voting, this year you would have a clear front runner in "The Shape of Water." But because of ranked choice voting I think, -- they just started voting today, they've got a week to vote -- I could picture five different movies winning Best Picture. I mean I think it does open things up. You know, movies like "Moonlight" and "Spotlight" don't feel like typical Best Picture winners, but maybe they are now under under ranked choice.
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Photo: Katherine Hepburn’s Four Oscars by Mr. Gray, via flickr ©A.M.P.A.S.®