Oscar's rules of enragement

Despite safeguards and revisions, the Oscar voting system may leave some well-liked diamonds in the rough

Will the best picture of the year be named Best Picture at the Oscars?

Critics may carp, but members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could also have reason to gripe that the eventual winners in at least two top categories -- best picture and best foreign language film -- are not in sync with their tastes.

That's because the Academy's complex voting system favors some films over others. And in a race where two titles could easily run neck-and-neck, the voting system can change the results of the election, just as much as it does political ones.

Rick Rosas, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and one of two accountants charged with tabulating the results, says there are years when just a few votes separate the winner from the losers.

"We have had exceedingly close (results), extremely close," he acknowledges. "This is my eighth year, and I definitely recall having to recount a couple of times for best picture."

The Academy uses two very different voting procedures to determine the nominees for best picture and the actual winner. It operates a whole other voting system in the foreign language race.

For best picture, since 1936 the Academy has favored what it calls "preferential" voting, a variant on the well-established Single Transferable Vote system.

The way this works, members (and all Academy members are eligible to nominate best picture contenders) choose five movies that they rank in order of preference. For a movie to get nominated, it must be ranked No. 1 by a fifth of the voters.

But what frequently happens is that only two or three movies cross that threshold. In this case, the Academy takes the movie with the lowest number of No. 1 votes and reallocates those votes to the No. 2 choices on the ballots.

Let's say a voter names "The Day the Earth Stood Still" as his first choice for best picture, but nobody else does. Let's also say he opts for "Slumdog Millionaire" as his second choice. His vote would be transferred from "Earth" to "Slumdog."

The process continues, eliminating from the bottom up, until five pictures have crossed the one-fifth threshold.

When members vote for the winner, however, a different system applies. At that stage it becomes a simple matter of first-past-the-post. So in theory, if four of this year's best picture nominees get just under 20% of the vote, and "Slumdog" gets just over 20%, it will win the Oscar. A plurality, not a majority, wins.

"With five nominees, in a significant number of cases, the Oscar recipient may have less than 50% of the vote -- they never tell us," says the Academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, referring to Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. "Theoretically, in a really tight race, you could win it with 21% of the vote."

Why should we care? The answer is that each system favors a different kind of movie.

For the nomination stage, it doesn't matter if some people are passionate about your movie, even if they constitute almost 20% of the voters; what matters is that enough other people like it so much they are willing to rank it No. 2. So a picture like "The Wrestler," which has a coterie of ardent fans but which also polarized audiences, might have had a significant number of people who made it their first choice, but not enough second-place votes to end up with a nomination.

By contrast, a widely respected picture like "The Reader" might have been fewer voters' first choice, but it could have ended up with so many second or third-place nods that it was nominated.

This could be one reason "The Dark Knight" failed to get nominated, an oversight that several insiders believe will have a serious effect on the Oscarcast's declining ratings. Many of the Academy's younger members might have made it their first choice, but not enough to cross the 20% threshold. Then too few older members placed it second on their ballots.

If this nominating system favors generally acceptable films over ones that are adored by a passionate minority, by contrast, the method for choosing the winner benefits one film with the most intense support. So if more people are truly passionate about "Benjamin Button" than, say, "Frost/Nixon," it will win the Oscar -- regardless of the fact that "Frost/Nixon" might draw more second-place votes.

The system governing the foreign-language race skews the results in other ways. There are five stages in choosing the foreign language Oscar winner:

First, each foreign country selects one candidate -- hence, France this year chose "The Class" rather than, say, "I've Loved You So Long," which was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Second, Academy members who volunteer to serve on its foreign language committee watch the submissions and vote on the ones they like the best. That means several hundred members agree to watch the 67 foreign submissions. (In actual practice, they break down into four groups, with each group watching a quarter of the submissions.) The six top vote-getters at this stage move on to the next round.

Third, the executive committee that runs the foreign language branch chooses three more films from the original list of submissions, creating a short list of nine.

Fourth, a newly formed committee of 10 invited New York members, 10 invited Los Angeles members and 10 randomly picked members from the original group of volunteers watches all nine finalists over a three-day period and narrows the list to five final nominees. (The Academy doesn't name the members of this ad hoc committee, but foreign language chair Mark Johnson says last year's crew included director Jonathan Demme, actor John Turturro, writer-director Nora Ephron, composer Howard Shore and editor Craig McKay.)

Fifth, any Academy member who agrees to see all five nominees can vote on the winner. Unlike other films, however, the foreign language nominees must be seen in a theater or at the Academy itself.

Stages three and four were created a year ago to address strenuous objections that only older and usually more conservative members had time to see all the submissions. In the past, they have failed to nominate such acclaimed works as Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" (2002), Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother" (1999) and last year's Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

This year, many believe the system is working better. But the absence of such praised movies as Italy's "Gomorra" and France's "I've Loved You So Long" from the final five has drawn flak.

"(It) still doesn't work, but it's better than in the past," says Fredell Pogodin, a publicist who handles many foreign films, including "Gomorra." "How much of that is attributable to better films and how much to the changes, I don't know."

Others are more critical -- like Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films, which has U.S. rights to "Gomorra" and two other finalists.

"Something's still not right about the whole process," he says. "It's how they go about it. There's an obvious bias on the committee against movies that contain any sort of violence or controversy."

That "Gomorra" was passed over proves the changes didn't work, he adds. "I can speak for all of Italy, not just the filmmakers, and they're devastated by the omission."

Davis acknowledges the system was flawed in the past.

"The feeling over the years was that if it got a little edgy and wasn't a traditional narrative, it would be turned down," he admits. But he says the executive committee of around 20 members discussed "Gomorra" at length before leaving it off the list.

"The addition of an executive committee means that entries are seen by two committees," he notes, "which is our effort to speak to that possibility (of missing an important film)."

Johnson, who says he saw 47 of this year's submissions, praises the change to the voting process for bringing more and younger members into the process.

"There are many lifelong members of the general committee who are dogged about seeing a lot of movies and making their picks," he notes, "but this lets members (with less time) have input as well."

Despite the "Gomorra" controversy, Davis argues this has been a quiet year, compared to a past littered with lawsuits and long battles. Such was the case last year with the Israeli film "The Band's Visit," about an Egyptian band in Israel, which was disqualified because too much dialogue was in English.

"It seems like an unusually uncontentious year," Davis says. "We keep waiting for the guns to come out, and that hasn't happened."

Davis says the category has been a lightning rod for controversy, in part because the very name "best foreign language film" is misleading. In a recent Academy newsletter, he noted that people assume the Academy looks at every film produced.

"That would be a very tall order," he says -- especially given that India alone produces over 1,000 movies annually, and France and Italy several hundred more -- and argues it would be logistically impossible to judge all of these.

Instead, the Academy has adopted what it calls the Olympic model, which means France gets to enter only one movie, the same as a country that might produce one or two pictures per year. It is an imperfect system, but, says Davis, "it's impossible to do any other way."

"It's like the World Cup," adds Johnson. "Brazil could probably field five teams; but in order to be fair, they're only allowed to field one, and Luxembourg can field one. And that's just the way it is."
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