How the Shape of Water Won Best Picture: Being the Best at Second Place

For those who missed Sunday night’s ceremony, spoiler alert I suppose? The Shape of Water edged out a highly competitive Best Picture lineup for the big win of the night.

This was not necessarily surprise, as it was considered a front runner. But therein lies the intrigue; there was no singular leading film. This was a particularly contentious year for Best Picture, at least on the face of things.

And yet, it was “the fish movie” that took away the prize. Why? Probably because it was a great second place pick.

Please note that the following has nothing to do with technical merit; this is not a judgement of the films quality, simply its likelihood to win votes.

The Oscars use preferential voting, rather than a plurality system. If any one film were to get 50% of the votes, then it automatically is the Best Picture winner. In years like this one, where there are nine candidates, this is practically impossible.

Instead, all candidates are ranked by the Academy voters. The first place votes are allocated out, and the film with the least amount of first place votes is eliminated. The second place votes for those ballots are then allocated out.

This continues until a film secures the necessary 50% of the vote.

With a system like this, the eventual winner needs two important traits: the movie has to be a leading contender, but it also needs to be generally well liked. That is, it needs to be a lot of folks second pick.

In a scenario like this year, when Three Billboards was the Vegas and Gold Derby favorite, and Get Out was seen as the choice of the people, ballots were going to be very contentious.

A controversial movie like Billboards may have a lot of first place votes, but not so many second place picks. And while Get Out could have had a lot of support, it did not win most of the important pre-Oscar awards, save for the Spirits. This suggests that it had die hard fans, and likely was a top three for many ballots, but did not have the weight to carry a first place pick.

Thus, you arrive at The Shape of Water‘s victory. Beloved enough to win a good portion of first place votes, but more importantly, generally liked enough by everyone to get the second place votes.

Like a strange twist on the tortoise and the hare, it is not the most popular movie of the bunch that wins the race. Rather, it is the one that most folks thought was pretty darn good.

This year, that movie happened to include a fish-person.

Eric Morales
Eric Morales
Eric Morales is from the bear-ridden schools of Wyoming, but in his 5th year in Chicago. More importantly, he achieved minor Twitter fame once and hasn't stopped bringing it up since. He has a healthy obsession with Star Wars, Wonder Woman, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Bulbasaur. Please validate him by following him on Twitter, @ericsmorals