The Marquee Blog

Oscar's 'new math': How best picture will be picked

Oscar oddsmakers have "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar" in a virtual dead heat for best picture.  So it's a sure bet that one of them will win on Sunday, right?

Not necessarily.

Voting for best picture – and tabulating those votes – isn't a simple case of majority rule.  For one thing, with 10 nominees this year, it's more likely than ever that no film will receive 50 percent-plus-one of the vote: If "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" are as close as believed, even if the other eight nominees combined drew, say, just 15 percent of the votes, that likely would be enough to keep either of the favorites from reaching 50 percent.

In the past, that wouldn't have mattered: the top vote-getter would take the trophy, end of story.

But this year, the Academy changed the script.  When it expanded the best picture category from five nominees to 10, it also changed the voting system from a plurality (most votes wins) to something that sounds like a communicable disease – STV.  It actually stands for the Single Transferable Vote system, and it's also known as Instant Runoff, Preferential Voting or Alternative Voting.

Basically, instead of just selecting a favorite, each voter ranks all 10 nominees.  The ballots are separated into 10 groups: those with "Avatar" No. 1 in one group, those with "Hurt Locker" as the top pick in another, and so forth.  Then, if no film has a majority of No. 1 votes, the system goes to work.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that "A Serious Man" receives the fewest No. 1 votes.  (Sorry, Joel and Ethan.)  That film would be knocked out, and the ballots in that pile would be redistributed among the remaining nominees, based on those ballots' second choices.  If that doesn't produce a film with a majority, the process is repeated with the No. 9 movie, and so forth.

Some people see this system as favoring "Hurt Locker."  They reason is that even people who didn't love the war drama respect it as a well-made film, while people who disliked "Avatar" really hated it, because they disagree with one of its perceived messages, or they just don't think a special-effects-heavy film should win best picture.  So while many people who don't rate "Hurt Locker" first might put it second or third, voters who don't pick "Avatar" to win might rank it at or near the bottom.

See the problem with handicapping a 10-nominee race under these rules?  You have to predict not only voters' first choices, but how strategic they'll be filling out the rest of the ballot.  I think the system could open the door for a film that, while not many think of it as a best picture, just about everyone loved – a film like "Up."

By the way, you may not have heard of this system before, but it's been around a while.  In fact, the Academy has long used it to choose the best picture nominees.  It's also gaining a foothold in politics: it's been used or is set to be used in some 15 cities and states, including Memphis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Burlington, Vermont, as well as in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and other countries.  Supporters say it eliminates the expense of runoff elections, and ensures the winner has a mandate from a majority.

We'll find out Sunday night which film has the "mandate" of the Academy membership.