The La La Land Mishap is Not the Most Important Academy Flub

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made two major flubs in recent years, each compounding the other, making the La La Land mistake minuscule by comparison. There’s an easy fix, but first the flubs.

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided it needed to expand interest in the Oscar telecast, and so they expanded the potential number of contenders for Best Picture from 5 to as many as 10. The idea was to get more mass appealing films on the list, which would appeal to more moviegoers, who would then watch the broadcast, which would raise ratings, resulting in more money. A smart win-win idea. The problem is that members of the Academy tended to nominate more of the smaller, actor-driven dramas and art-house films anyway, most of which would win, which defeated the purpose of having a longer list of contenders. And so general moviegoer interest and ratings have not skyrocketed. In fact, television ratings have fallen. Nice plan. Bad execution.

Worse, is that the Academy compounded the problem. When they expanded the list of Best Picture nominations, they also changed the way they counted votes. In the past when there were only 5 nominated films, they would simply give the Best Picture Oscar to the nominated film that had the most votes. Easy and understandable. That is how they still handle all other categories. But when they switched to as many as 10 nominees for Best Picture, they decided to use a preferential voting system. Basically, the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers now has each voter rank order the contending pictures from first to last. If no picture has more than 50% of the first choice votes, they take the film with the fewest first choice votes, toss it out, but reallocate those votes to those voters’ second choice film. This drop and reallocation process continues until a film achieves over 50% of the votes. That film is then declared Best Picture.

Get it? The general public doesn’t know this, and many members of the Academy are understandably dumbfounded by it. A partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers once said that, “Often, it’s the movie listed third, fourth or fifth on a great many ballots that ends up winning.” That’s because movies keep getting eliminated in the process and only their second choice votes count for those that remain. Are you confused yet? You should be.

Here’s an extreme example to make a point. Let’s say La La Land obtained 49% of every voters’ first choice, making it far and away the leader. Let’s say Moonlight only achieved 20% of the first choice votes, clearly not first and certainly not last either. However, let’s say all voters gave their second choices to Moonlight. Then as lower scoring films are kicked out and their votes are reallocated only to Moonlight, the film gains more and more votes and, miraculously, nets 51% and wins Best Picture. I don’t know to what degree this happened this year, if at all, because the Academy does not issue tallies. If they did, there would be a riot because the system is flawed. I have conducted over 1000 research studies in my marketing practice in support of billion dollar companies and brands, and while we often look at second choice preference to break a tie when two or more product concepts, for example, have very close first place votes, we never give such immense power to second place contenders. Why? Because in the world of voter and consumer preference, second place is for losers. Oddly, there are cities in the United States that conduct their local elections this way. Enough said.

Imagine if you are the producer of La La Land and you discovered the hypothetical scenario I painted above. Would you have graciously given your Oscar to the producer of Moonlight when the correct announcement card was found, or would you have asked the Academy how the hell this can happen?

The preferential voting system is technically cool but it fails the common sense test. It’s an approach that only accounting geeks would love...and they do.

Interestingly, the real problem is not the preferential voting system; the real problem is why the Academy went from 5 Best Picture contenders to as many as 10. The idea, once again, was to hopefully include more blockbuster films so that more people would watch the show, giving ABC higher ratings, which would mean more money for all. But smaller films still dominate the nominations, and so the objective was not achieved. As of this writing, Moonlight has grossed only $22 million worldwide. The top 2016 worldwide grossing film was Captain America: Civil War with over $1.1 billion. You can imagine why a lot of moviegoers don’t bother to watch on Oscar night.

So Dear Academy, here’s a recommendation that will solve both of your flubs. First, go back to 5 contenders for Best Picture. The winner should be the film that gets the most first place votes. Period. Members of the Academy will nominate and pick small drama, actor driven films as they have. Then create a new category that I have proposed for years, that of Best Blockbuster. The nominations will automatically include the top 5 films based on worldwide box office gross. The members of the Academy can select the one that demonstrates the greatest overall artistry, using first choice preference only. If promoted well, the Best Blockbuster category will attract more viewers, increase television ratings, and bring in more money. Imagine the immense publicity that would have been achieved this year if the Academy had pitted Captain America against Rogue One, Finding Dory, Zootopia and The Jungle Book. That would have been a PR executives’ dream.

This approach is simple and easy to understand, something that has been missing at the Oscars for too many years.


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