Why the Oscars Are Rigged to Pick 'La La Land'

FiveThirtyEight's by-the-numbers breakdown of the Academy voting process reveals why movies like 'La La Land' prevail.

The good data folk at FiveThirtyEight always have a contentious take on the outcome of high-profile political and social events, and the Oscars are no different. Earlier this week, the political aggregation site's chief culture writer, Walt Hickey, confirmed a popular hunch: that the awards show is engineered in favor of movies like La La Land. To understand why, we'll have to take a deep dive into the analytics that drive the Academy Awards machine.

Below, FiveThirtyEight's video shows how names land in those coveted envelopes. Using Moonlight's Mahershala Ali—up for Best Supporting Actor—as an example, Hickey delineates the Academy voting process, noting that Ali had to receive 17% of first-choice votes from the actors in the Academy in order to be nominated.

But when it comes to the win, things get a little more complicated.

In order to win for Best Supporting Actor on Sunday, Ali's performance will have to have garnered more votes than his rivals across the rest of 18 Academy voting branches (actors are the largest, followed by producers and animators), comprised of 6,689 members total.

That's Best Supporting Actor. But how does a film achieve the majority vote for Best Picture? In 2010, the answer to this question changed significantly when the Academy decided to expand the number of Best Picture nominees to more than five films. In doing so, the process was no longer what FiveThirtyEight calls a "first-past-the-post" system, where a film simply needed to amass more votes than the others nominated. This system paved the way for a dark horse outcome; a film could win without majority appeal, as it only needed to have the support of a dedicated minority to prevail.

Post-2010, the Academy's system no longer favors the popular vote. FiveThirtyEight's breakdown explains it as follows:

  1. Count up all the first-choice votes.
  2. If a movie gets a majority, that’s the winner. If none does, eliminate the last-place movie from contention.
  3. Take all of the ballots with the eliminated movie at the top. Reapportion them to each voter’s next preferred movie.
  4. Go back to step two.

Instead of picking a choice for Best Picture, voters rank them. As FiveThirtyEight notes, the individual ballots are counted with instant runoff voting, which "awards films with broad majority appeal over ones that have strong plurality appeal."

So, let's say most of the Academy thought La La Land was pretty good—not great enough for a first pick, but certainly for a second choice. Under this scenario, La La Land wins the Oscar. It was universally recognized as good, even if it wasn't everyone's actual favorite.

Of course, La La Land is the least controversial Best Picture nominee this year. That's why FiveThirtyEight is sure it's going to win.     

Your Comment

14 Comments

Ali is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, not Best Actor.

February 23, 2017 at 3:47PM

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Travis Orozco
Director/Cinematographer/Editor
91

Good catch-fixed!

February 23, 2017 at 4:38PM

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Liz Nord
Documentary Filmmaker/Multi-platform Producer
866

Enough with the clickbate titles.

The Oscars are not "rigged" to pick La La Land. The Oscars simply favor the consensus pick. There is no actual data that shows that La La Land is the consensus pick. It may very well be but it's just conjecture.

La La Land won BAFTA and the DGA, both awards that don't use a ranked ballot.

February 23, 2017 at 4:13PM, Edited February 23, 4:18PM

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Ricardo
Film Student
227

Whose words against whose words?

February 23, 2017 at 4:50PM

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Wentworth Kelly
DP/Colorist/Drone Op
2839

I'm afraid I didn't get your point.

February 24, 2017 at 5:37AM

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Ricardo
Film Student
227

Lest we not forget that LA LA LAND like every Best Picture Winner before it (if indeed it does win) and every one after it has this in common....its based in choice...time will decide whether or not it really is the best picture from this year...just like no one believes ORDINARY PEOPLE was the real best picture of 1981 or FORREST GUMP was best picture in 1994 ( I would assume most of us are in agreement that RAGING BULL is the best picture from 81 and either PULP FICTION or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION should have won over GUMP although there is no doubting GUMP is a great film)....there have been dozens of times the best picture from a certain year wasn't even nominated for best picture (HEAT, SLING BLADE, THE USUAL SUSPECTS and MEMENTO come to mind)...and if LA LA LAND is truly a great movie it will be remembered long after the Oscars for this year are forgotten....

February 23, 2017 at 9:57PM

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I agree and it's pretty mediocre and not nearly as good as any of the movies it's trying to emulate.

February 25, 2017 at 10:25AM

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Frank Mck
154

Emily - good article. The Oscars are paid for by Hollywood. Only what they want wins. Pretty simple marketing.

February 23, 2017 at 11:27PM

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guest
172

The best movie of the year is "Hidden Figures". This one movie is doing more for the future of this country than 50 "La La Lands".

February 24, 2017 at 8:52AM

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William Scherer
Writer/Director/Producer/Fine Art Aerial Photography
261

I keep seeing these stills of the two actors in the film standing above LA with their arms outstretched like birds - and it just looks stupid. Musicals are tough for me in general, so I asked my film teacher what she thought. Jenn said it it wasn't original enough - not fresh enough. She'd seen it before - in Gene Kelly's "Dancing in the Rain" - where it was much better. She's right - I look at Gene Kelly's work and it doesn't look stupid. I guess Hollywood has a short term memory...no surprise.

February 25, 2017 at 3:53AM

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Ed Wright
Director, DP, Writer
455

I lost respect for Five Thirty Eight after botching their analysis of the presidential election. They had Hillary at 82% and Trump at 18% the day before the election.

February 25, 2017 at 5:24AM

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Five Thirty Eight works in probable statistics - its not fortune telling.

Predicting the most likely outcome, as you see Donald Trump's chances of winning weren't zero, just not as likely.

February 25, 2017 at 10:20PM

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Tenolian
256

Sorry, but you and FiveThirtyEight (and Warren Beatty) were wrong. #fail

February 26, 2017 at 10:57PM

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Cosmin Gurau
Director
311

WELL I guess not lolllllllllllll. Great diverse night for the Oscars. Great win for LaLa Land...I meant Moonlight, yea Moonlight.

February 27, 2017 at 5:12PM

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Adam Arad
Cinematogrpher
262