Mystery Solved: Here's Who Actually Chooses Academy Award Winners

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Sealed envelopes are never quite as sexy as they are during spy movies and the Academy Awards. This Sunday, we'll watch presenters remove cards from envelopes with the same degree of anticipation as Charlie opening up a chocolate bar. The names are read with such authority that often, we never pause to think about how those winners were actually selected. How, among the hundreds of performances, films, and makeup artists, are these 25 winners singled out?

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The answer comes from within a familiar scene. We've seen it all before: a recently crowned Best Supporting Actress racing through the “thank you’s” in her speech before suddenly pausing to thank the Academy. Who the heck is the Academy, though, and why does it belong alongside the actress’s slew of thank you’s?

Fear not, young cinephile. We'll unmask everything that happens to get that sealed envelope into the hands of a presenter, who will inevitably fumble before announcing a winner.

Who Votes?

Perhaps the sound of "the Academy" conjures up a set of cloaked figures roaming through damp medieval hallways, holding long scrolls and heavy tomes. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but the Oscars winners are chosen by vetted members of show biz, not dour monks.

Each of the 6,000 voting members that comprise the Academy are established fixtures in Hollywood, with impressive CVs in their field. Writers, producers, and directors must have two prior credits, and members from the more technical fields must reach a specific number of years of work experience before entry into the Academy.

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Once inducted into the Academy under a certain category, in that category you shall stay. So, while he's racked up more and more director credits over the years, Ben Affleck will always vote as an actor.

A member’s category comes into play significantly during the nomination process. While all members can nominate a Best Picture, members from each field are restricted to voting in their field when casting more specific nominations. So, only directors can nominate other directors for the Best Director; only actors are eligible to nominate other actors.

How Are Nominees Chosen?

Given the number of movies produced each year, the amount of people and films that actually score a nomination is quite miniscule. Narrowing down to the five nominees per category is no easy feat. In fact, after reading through the process, you’ll have a much better understanding of why an accounting firm is present at the awards ceremony — it's a downright mathematical process.

First, each Academy member votes for five nominees in eligible categories, ranking in order of preference. The Academy encourages voters to vote with their gut.

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In January, after receiving all the ballots, employees at PricewaterhouseCooper sharpen their left brains, pull out their calculators, and determine the nominees in absolute secrecy.

Choosing the nominees is just as convoluted as the presidential election process. When sifting through the ballots, accountants are looking for nominees who reach the “magic number,” or the amount of votes that transforms a potential nominee into an official nominee. The Cinderella-in-rags to the Cinderella-in-gown vote, more or less.

First, the ballots are sorted (by hand!) in order of first-choice selection. If a nominee reaches the magic number based on first choice, then wham-bam, she's a nominee. But there are still four more slots to fill. The ballots must be reshuffled and reordered, this time, based on the voters second-place. If, for example, Ryan Gosling received 97 first-choice votes for Best Actor and then receives three votes from the redistributed ballots, then he’s in. And so the process goes until all five nominees are safely snug on their ballot.

Who Makes the Final Call?

The nomination process is mathematical, intense, and chock full of "magic numbers." Compared to all that witchcraft, the procedure for actually choosing a winner is a breeze.

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After the nominees are announced in a press conference, the Academy sends a final ballot home to all members.

During this two week voting period, the previous voting restrictions are lifted and each member can vote in whichever category he or she pleases. Good news, Ben, you can vote like a director at last.

Selecting a winner is far simpler than selecting a nominee. No more reshuffling of ballots and keeping track of tallies until you’re cross-eyed, either. The nominee with the most votes wins.

The Academy Awards is a labor of love, and not only for the incredible work that went into creating the films and performances. According to Entertainment Weekly, about 1,700 hours of work are devoted to counting the ballots. Perhaps the accountants’ paper cuts hurt more than the broken hearts of noms who don’t walk away with a prize.
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