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The Lens: Deciphering the Oscar voting system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2010 - It's the time of year when William Goldman's dictum about Hollywood - "Nobody knows anything" - is perhaps at its most pertinent.

On March 7, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be handing out its annual awards for the 82nd time; and as usual, a great deal of guesswork, speculation, counter-intelligence and just plain nonsense is being issued from reporters, voters, bloggers and would-be prophets - this writer included - who, for the most part, don't know anything.

Adding to the confusion this year is a major change in Academy procedure: This year the number of best picture nominees has doubled to 10, just as there were in the first decade or so of the awards history. The motivation for this change is questionable at best, and leads to an even more confusing change in the way the votes for best picture are counted. Stronger minds than mine have tried to explain the voting procedure, - but I'll try anyway.

In the past academy members - there are approximately 5,500 of them - simply checked off their choice of the five nominees. The film that received the most votes was then honored as best picture. Simple, right?

This year, each Academy member is expected to read the list of 10 nominees and then rank them in order of preference from 1 to 10. Let's say that once all 5,500 ballots have been received, the first place winners looks something like this (and I should add that the numbers below are purely arbitrary and not meant to be a prediction):

  • "Avatar" - 1,100 votes - 20 percent
  • "The Blind Side" - 165 votes - 3 percent
  • "District 9" - 110 votes - 2 percent
  • "An Education" - 165 votes - 3 percent
  • "The Hurt Locker" - 1,155 votes - 21 percent
  • "Inglourious Basterds" - 935 votes - 17 percent
  • "Precious" - 660 votes - 12 percent
  • "A Serious Man" - 330 votes - 6 percent
  • "Up" - 165 votes - 3 percent
  • "Up in the Air" - 715 votes - 13 percent

If the "The Hurt Locker," the film with the most votes in this scenario, had received more than 50 percent, it would be declared best picture. But with no single picture getting a clear majority, the race isn't over yet.
The only thing we've determined so far is that "District 9" is out of the running, so it's eliminated, and its 110 ballots are then examined for their 2nd place choices. Those votes wouldn't be sufficient to put any film squarely in 1st place, even if they all went to the same film, so the 9th lowest film would then be removed and its ballots then taken down a notch.

What this means is that even though most of the news this year has implied a close race between "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker," there could be an upset if, after the first few elimination, a particular film held a consistent place as the typical voter's 2nd or 3rd favorite - "Up in the Air" or "Inglourious Basterds," for example.

Confusing? Just a little. Arbitrary and designed to satisfy no one? That's an academy tradition.

As we lead up to March 7, I'll look at the nominations, go out on a limb with my own guesses and try to make sense of the more arcane voting requirements. As always there are a few mysteries: If "Up" is nominated for best picture, does that make it a shoo-in for "best animated feature"? What about the Wallace and Gromit factor? Do they really think that anybody is going to keep their acceptance speech under 45 seconds?

The Lens is a blog provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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