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# Oscar’s new math

Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has changed Oscar’s best picture nomination process for the second time in three years, voters will be looking at a shorter ballot and a greater premium on the order in which they rank their favorite movies.

When the academy announced the rule change in June, it signaled the end of a brief, two-year flirtation with a best picture field of 10 nominees, which produced an inclusiveness that earned nods for populist pictures such as “District 9" and “Inception.”

Would these two sci-fi-infused movies or a crowd-pleaser like “The Blind Side” make it under the academy’s newest preferential voting system? Possibly, but only if a sufficient number of voters liked them enough to place them first or second on their ballots.

“We want to make sure that the films getting these nominations really have the wide support of the membership and a chance of winning,” says Ric Robertson, who became the academy’s chief operating officer this year after serving as executive director for 20 years.

Here’s how the new system aims to accomplish those goals:

Academy members will be asked to rank five (rather than 10, as in the last two years) movies for best picture. Once the votes are in, the AMPAS accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, will first count the total number of ballots, divide it by 11 (the number of possible nominations, plus one) and arrive at the minimum number of first-place votes a movie needs to receive a best picture nomination.

Last year, the academy’s voting membership numbered 5,783. If, say, 5,500 members voted in the best picture category, a movie would need 500 first-place votes or more to land a nomination.

The accountants will then sort ballots based on first-place votes. When a film scores the minimum number, it’s in. And if it exceeds the minimum number by 10%, it triggers a surplus redistribution. Example: If a movie needs 500 first-place votes and receives 1,000, it now has 500 more votes than it needs to qualify. The first 500 votes will go to the first choice and the extra 500 will then go to the highest-ranked film on the ballot yet to qualify.

“The beauty of the system is the redistribution of votes,” Robertson says. “It’s designed to reflect the wishes of the greatest number of voters. If a particular movie doesn’t need all the support it receives, then a portion of the vote goes to the second-place line on the ballot.”

That fractional portion is determined by the percentage a film exceeds the minimum number of votes needed for a nomination. If a movie goes over by 20%, then the first-place vote receives eight-tenths of a vote and the second-place movie nets the remaining two-tenths.

And if an academy member selects a movie that receives less than 1% of the first-place votes (in our example, that would total less than 55 votes), then the accountants will disallow that vote and move down the ballot to the next movie still in the running. That vote will be redistributed at full value.

At this point, all the full votes and fractional votes will be added. Any movie with at least 5% of the total will receive a best picture nomination. When PricewaterhouseCoopers analyzed the votes from 2001 to 2008, this new system would have produced five to nine nominees. By rule, there will be no fewer than five and no more than 10 nominees.

“The whole point is for a ballot to have influence somewhere,” Robertson says. “And if that influence doesn’t happen until your fourth-place vote and your fourth-place vote still doesn’t actually become a nominee, you still ended up in a viable stack where you had a role in the voting. The majority of the ballots are going to have some say at some point in the process.”

Just as the 10-nominee slate divided academy members, the new system has left voters wondering how Oscar’s new math will add up.

“It’s designed to narrow the field without confirming the failure of the last two years,” says one academy member. “I can’t see how a small movie like ‘Winter’s Bone’ could make it now.”

Countered a high-level studio publicist: “It’s not the movies with reverent followings that are going to get hurt. Those films will be scoring the first-place votes. It’s the broader, commercial movies like ‘The Blind Side’ and ‘The Help,’ movies that are well-liked but not loved … those are the films that will be left out.”

One certainty: “People are going to be a bit more careful this year in the way they fill out their ballots,” says an academy member.

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