Will a change to Oscar voting give us better Best Picture winners?

Last man standing takes the prize

Last man standing takes the prize

Every Oscar-watcher knows that the process of choosing the Best Picture this year has changed. Last June, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced that the field of nominees for the ultimate Oscar would be expanded to 10. The idea was to open up the Best Picture field, making it less of a “Best Arty Tear-Jerker Released Late in the Year” prize. What most people haven’t noticed is that this change was followed by another, potentially more profound one.

In August, the AMPAS board announced that the Best Picture winner will be selected from the wider field, not by a simple first-past-the-post system, but by means of a preferential ballot. Most Oscars will be awarded, this year as ever, according to the simplest possible voting system: every eligible Academy member votes for one nominee, and the nominee with the most votes gets the statuette. Best Picture voters, however, will be asked to rank all 10 nominees by preference from one to 10. Oscar accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers will sort the votes into 10 piles according to their “No. 1” votes. If any nominee has a majority, it wins. If not, the nominee with the fewest No. 1 votes will be taken out of the running, and its votes reassigned to the nominees next in order on each slip. The process is repeated until a nominee gains 50 per cent support and achieves victory.

Canadians ought to be familiar with preferential voting. It’s more or less how our political parties routinely choose leaders, and Ontario and British Columbia held recent referendums on electoral reform in which the transferable vote played a major part. The idea behind the new process is pretty much the same one that motivated those reform efforts: to get a Best Picture supported by a consensus, rather than by a plurality of first-choice supporters.

Even in the old five-nominee Oscar races, a winner in the single round of voting could conceivably win even though 25 or 30 per cent of the voters loved it and everybody else hated it. (This may have enabled some Best Picture wins later considered controversial, like that of Crash in 2005 or Shakespeare in Love in 1998.) In a 10-nominee field, a mere 15 per cent might be more than enough. The board of governors, mindful that preferential voting was used in 10-nominee Best Picture races from 1936 to 1943, decided to re-adopt the old prophylactic measure against unpopular winners.

Might this change outcomes, and give us more widely accepted Best Pictures? Or will it Blind Side us with uncontroversial, anodyne ones? Think back to the 2006 Liberal leadership convention. If a plurality on the first ballot had been enough, history would remember Michael Ignatieff as the “winner” and Stéphane Dion as finishing third. Anti-Ignatieff sentiment was still strong in ’06 and voters migrated to Dion as weaker candidates dropped off the ballot. The new Best Picture system seems likely to give us fewer polarizing “Ignatieffs” and more compromise-candidate “Dions.” Strong starters that attract votes marked either one or 10 may find themselves caught from behind by nominees with a reservoir of twos and threes.

It’s clear that the system is still poorly understood. Toronto Star movies columnist Peter Howell devoted a column to one Academy voter’s angry attempt to “game” the preferential system by ranking his favourite nominee No. 1 and filling in no other preferences. (Which just means that if Anonymous Boob’s No. 1 movie is dropped, his vote will be thrown out instead of moved to another pile.) Harvey Weinstein, the cutthroat Oscar campaigner whose Weinstein Company helped finance Inglourious Basterds, has been boasting that actors form a strong plurality that will rally behind director Quentin Tarantino. But that’s the old logic talking; to win, Basterds or any other nominee will need to build a majority, somehow.

Oscar blogger Steve Pond recently observed that the Producers Guild of America hands out its Best Picture prize by preferential vote. The PGA was expected to honour James Cameron’s Avatar this year, but Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker won in an upset. If critical reception is any indication, something similar could transpire on Oscar night, March 7. The Hurt Locker appeared on virtually every reviewer’s year-end top 10; it didn’t face the critical resistance that Avatar, with its noble-savage clichés and its naive green-pacifist outlook, encountered in some quarters. Cameron may be king of the world, but the Oscars are a constitutional monarchy.