The Academy tend not to make this widely known, but the race for Best Picture at the Oscars every year for the past few ceremonies has been determined by a preferential ballot. For those unfamiliar, this resembles the system of election we have here in Ireland: you give a №1 vote to your first choice, a №2 vote to your second choice and so on; when your first choice is eliminated in a count your vote ‘transfers’ to your next preference. It’s a brilliant system that favours minor contenders in an election, as a citizen can show favour to a niche candidate while not ‘wasting’ their vote — as it will ultimately transfer to one of the major parties anyway if they use transfers correctly. In a competition for the first movie of the year, it’s a different story.
At the Oscars, preferential ballot creates a bizarre process. One would naturally assume that the Best Picture winner is the film that received the most votes from Academy members. But it’s actually the film that triumphs in this PR (Proportional Representation) system. Hence we have what I’m going to call the ‘Rotten Tomatoes Effect’: a film often gets a 90%+ score on Rotten Tomatoes because every critic gave it a middling-to-positive review. Nobody might have loved it, but nobody hated it either.
At the Oscars, this means that while everyone who watched Little Women thought it was the best film of the year, not everybody watched Little Women. Whereas everybody saw Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, some loved it and many thought it was perfectly ok. It’s going to be lots of voters’ fourth or fifth preference. Little Women, which probably scared off many old male white conservatives in the Academy who shuddered at sitting through a Greta Gerwig/Meryl Streep woke feminism lecture (which that movie kinda is, and is incredible), won’t get any preference at all from those who didn’t bother watching it. Hollywood, however, will appear on every ballot. Everyone saw that film.
2017’s The Shape of Water triumphing over Get Out and Lady Bird was the first big example of this process in action: not a single person’s favourite film of the year, but a film that made an appearance on the ballots of young and old, left and right-wing. In 2020, even more so than Hollywood, that film is Sam Mendes’ effortfully executed, effortlessly moving war drama 1917, a film with subtly anti-war politics just quiet enough not to frighten a jingoist, but sharp enough to please a liberal millennial. It’s probably only going to get 10–20% of first preference votes, but it’s going to win. Because everyone will watch it, everyone will rank it third, fourth or fifth, and when Ford v Ferrari and The Irishman and Jojo Rabbit are eliminated on the first three counts it will sneak into third place and rapidly become the immovable lead. With this system in place, a beloved but relatively wild entry like Uncut Gems would never stand a chance.