Who Are “They?”–How Oscars Nominations and Voting Work

Do you think Bradley Cooper deserved a Best Director nomination for his directorial debut in 2018’s poignant retelling of A Star is Born? Were you shocked to see Willem Dafoe’s absence in this year’s Best Actor category after his horrifyingly brilliant performance in The Lighthouse? Oscar nominations and wins can often leave us scratching our heads, but just how are contenders chosen – and by whom?


For starters, films are nominated by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – more commonly known as “The Academy.” The organization is made up of over 8,000 people, all of which have to be active in the film industry.

The Academy has 17 branches, many of which correspond with the awards categories – including a branch for directors, editors, and cinematographers. Other branches include producers, executives, marketing and public relations, and what’s called a members-at-large branch – which is a catch all for people in the film industry who don’t fit in the other branches.

Each branch has their own membership criteria. All branches require that prospective members have made recent contributions to the industry. For example, the directors branch requires members to have a minimum of two directing credits, one of which needs to have been in the last 10 years. The directing credits can’t be for any old direct-to-DVD film you might find in heavy rotation on the Disney channel either. According to the Academy’s website, the credit must be for a feature film that “reflect[s] the high standards of the Academy.”

Other means of being accepted into the Academy include winning an Oscar or a nomination in one of the branches, or having current members of the Academy sponsor a candidate for consideration by the executive committee of a branch.

When it comes to voting, members vote within their corresponding branch, meaning that editors vote for best editing nominees, actors vote for best actor nominees, and so on. Members of each branch are asked to pick their top 5 choices for nominees and rank them from 1 to 5. Candidates need a certain number of first place votes to earn a nomination. When a candidate receives enough first-place votes, they become a nominee.

The amount of first-place votes needed to earn a nomination varies by category, and is often called the “magic number.” The number is calculated by taking the total number of ballots received in the category of Best Director, for example, and dividing it by the total number of possible nominees, plus one. To find the remaining nominees, accountants look for the director with the fewest first place votes, these ballots are then redistributed based on the second-place votes on those ballots. This cycle continues until all 5 nominations are filled.

Once all the nominees for each category have been chosen, the entire Academy gets to choose a winner in each category. The nominee with the most votes in that category wins.
For the Best Picture category, the rules are different – all 8,000 members of the Academy vote for a total of 10 possible nominees. If a film receives at least 5% of the votes from the Academy, they’ve earned a nomination. However, to choose a winner, a method called preferential balloting is used, which is similar to the method used to find the nominees in every other category, except on a much grander scale.

With such an intricate numbers system in play for determining nominees and winners, it can be easy to forget that at the end of the day, the Oscars is an entirely subjective event. In order for a film to land a place on any of these ballots – let alone earn a nomination – they need to run a media campaign large enough to stay relevant in the minds of Academy members. This includes screening there films at major film festivals across the world such as Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, among others, all the while running a barrage of ads and promotional campaigns.

Mathew Messa is an intern for the Film Studies Program.  He’s a film critic in training and a David Lynch super fan.