This is my first year as an Academy member, and my first year voting for awards. As a member of the Writers branch, I’ll be casting ballots for Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

Since it’s all new to me, I thought I’d walk readers through the process.

A few weeks ago, I got a printed Reminder List — a catalog listing all the films eligible for Best Picture. It’s from this list that I have to pick and rank my top ten films. I’ll hand-write the titles on a form that goes in a green envelope, which must be received by the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP by 5 p.m. January 23, 2010.

Nominating ten films for Best Picture is a change from previous years, in which there were only five nominations.1 But the system of ranking your choices dates back to 1936. It’s a form of preferential voting designed to more accurately reflect the will of voters.

But man, it’s complicated. It’s easier to explain what it’s not.

  1. It’s not a weighted ballot. You might think that your top pick gets 10 points, while your second pick gets nine points, etc. It’s not that. In fact…

  2. You’re really only voting for one title. Your ballot will only be counted towards one film. That film will be the one you ranked first, unless your number one pick has the smallest number of votes and is thus out of the running. In that case, they count your second pick. If needed, they’ll continue on to your third, fourth or later picks until your ballot is cast for exactly one picture.2

  3. It’s not “wasting your vote” to rank your number-one pick first. You might think your favorite movie is a longshot for a nomination, but that film could get enough second- or third-place votes to put it in the top 10. And if it doesn’t, your vote will go to your next-highest choice. But the rules state that a picture can’t be nominated without at least one number-one vote.

  4. A full ballot doesn’t hurt your top picks. In WGA board elections, I’m always mindful that casting a vote for a candidate I half-heartedly support might knock out the candidates I truly want. So I’ll often cast a short ballot with just my top choices. For Academy Award nominations, that’s not a factor. While it’s unlikely that my tenth-ranked choice would benefit from my vote, it doesn’t hurt to include it.

This year, in a change from previous years, the final voting for Best Picture will also use preferential voting. Instead of picking one film, voters will rank the ten nominees in order.

At the new members reception, Academy leaders stressed the importance of seeing all ten nominees. I’m mostly caught up, but I’ll be sure to watch any ones I’ve missed before final voting.

Nominations for the two writing categories work basically the same as Best Picture. We’re given a list of eligible screenplays, and a form upon which to rank our choices in each category. Only screenwriters vote for the writing awards.

  1. But there’s certainly historical precedent: in 1934, there were 12 nominees. Widening the field has been controversial, but I’m inclined to wait and see how it turns out.
  2. You could presumably pick ten movies that no one else does. That’s one challenge of such a wide-open field of choices.