BEVERLY HILLS—It used to be that picking a best-picture Oscar winner was as easy as one, two, three.
Academy members would open their ballots, choose a favorite, and the nominee with the most votes would take home the top Academy Award.
Not this year. It turns out that counting to 10, as in this year's expanded list of 10 best-picture nominees, is a lot more complicated.
Final Oscar ballots went out Wednesday to the 5,777 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Members were asked to mark their singular favorite in each category - except best picture, where they were to rank the 10 nominated films according to their preference. Their favorite film gets a one, their second favorite a two and so on.
Accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that has tallied Oscar votes for the past 76 years, then employ an old-school method to determine support for the films in the running. The system is also used in some municipal elections nationwide and to determine Oscar nominees each year.
Here's how it works: Rick Rosas and Brad Oltmanns, partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers, meet in a windowless room in a secret location with the completed Oscar ballots.
They separate the paper ballots into stacks based on the film listed in first place on each one. So, there will be a stack of ballots listing "Avatar" in the first position, another for those ranking "The Hurt Locker" first, another for those listing "Up in the Air" as their first choice, and so on.
The smallest stack will belong to the film with the fewest first-place votes. That movie is then eliminated from contention, and its votes are redistributed among the remaining stacks according to the film listed in second place on each of those ballots.
Still with me?
"It will effectively be an instant-runoff type election," Rosas said, "where we'll sort through the voters' first preferences, and then we'll be looking to determine which film has a 50 percent-plus-one vote majority preference."
Rosas and Oltmanns will keep redistributing votes from films with less support to those with more support until one film collects something like 2,889 ballots (if all 5,777 ballots are completed and returned) - or 50 percent of the electorate, plus one - in its stack. It could take several rounds of redistribution to reach that number, and the nominee that does will be the best picture winner.
It may be complicated to understand, but Oltmanns said it's a worthwhile system when picking one winner from 10 nominees.
Otherwise a film could win the top prize with just 11 or 12 percent of the overall vote.
"It might be unlikely, but mathematically it would be possible," he said. "When you have 10 contenders for one particular award, the advantage of the preferential balloting system is it really gauges the depth of support among all the people that are voting, or most of the people that are voting."
And forget what you may have heard about a film with more second-place votes winning the best picture Oscar, Rosas said.
"The key is to have the highest number of first-place votes. That will always be the case, because that gives you the highest probability of winning," he said. "Voters' second- or third-place preference or choice may never come into play, depending on what their first was."
The counting begins after 5 p.m. March 2, when all ballots are due back to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Luckily, all we have to do is watch when the results are revealed at the Academy Awards on March 7.