Rigging the Oscars

97053717 0 Rigging the OscarsThis Sunday night, watch the Academy Awards on television, count to 10-and wait for the controversy over vote counting to begin.

The big question mark surrounding this year’s Oscars is not so much who is going to win, but how. This year, the Academy expanded the field of nominations from 5 to 10, and introduced a system known as “preferential” voting in the category. The idea behind preferential voting is that in a wide field of candidates, it ensures that, as the Academy put it, “the collective judgment” of its nearly 6,000 voting members is “most accurately represented.” Indeed, if it were a simple case of the film with the most votes winning, in a close field of 10 nominees, it would take as few as 11 percent of the votes for one candidate to take the prize. Preferential voting is more complicated but more effective: Voters are asked to rank their choices from 1 to 10, and the votes are tallied in such a way that the lowest first-place vote-getter is eliminated and the second choice on those ballots is applied to the next round; the process is repeated until a clear winner has more than 50 percent of the votes.

Confused? Never mind. Preferential voting has its flaws. It’s possible for a nominee to win even if that movie doesn’t have the most first-place votes. The switch to the new system has led to some interesting hypothesizing, namely that Inglourious Basterds, an acquired taste, has a shot at unseating front-runners like Avatar and The Hurt Locker, if enough voters who didn’t love Avatar or Locker don’t fill out the 1-to-10 rankings. (Or if, as several Oscar aficionados said to me, lots of voters are just too confused by the new ballot.) “It is difficult to understand how it works,” says Tony Angelotti, a PR executive who consults on Oscar campaigns.

At this point, of course, a surprise means a win by anyone who is not a member of the onetime husband-and-wife duo of James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. The irony is that the expanded field of nominees in its first year (with apologies to The Blind Side, A Serious Man and An Education) feels more padded than inclusive. A delayed campaign season because of the Winter Olympics and not one but two ceremony hosts have helped make the whole exercise seem as stretched out as a Terrence Malick director’s cut. But the extra time has also allowed awards campaigners to reach deep into their bag of tricks. Both Mr. Cameron’s Avatar and Ms. Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker are up against the fact that neither a sci-fi film nor a female director has ever taken home the big prize. We’ll see whether that’s a boon or a burden.

In general, weightiness and critical acclaim matter most to the academy-as the Slumdog Millionaire juggernaut last year attests. (The Departed, to name one recent winner, shows there are exceptions, too.) As Peter Hammond, a film reviewer who also blogs about the Oscars, noted, the quest for weightiness has led to some amusing eleventh-hour positioning of lead nominees: Avatar is being touted for its eco-activist message as much as for its technological wizardry and popcorn entertainment value. The Hurt Locker, if it wins, could be one of the least-watched best pictures ever (it has done $12.6 million domestically so far, less than half of what Avatar brought in on its first day.) Of course, The Hurt Locker has had to overcome audiences’ aversion to war films set in Iraq, and its early marketing smartly tried to play that aspect down-lately, however, Ms. Bigelow has participated in panel discussions on the war, as controversy has brewed over the film’s depictions of the military. The idea that it is one Iraq war movie that people should actually see is tough for the Academy to ignore.

Meanwhile, with the backing of the Harvey Weinstein marketing machine, Inglourious Basterds has tried to show that it is not just a shoot-‘em-up, blood-soaked Tarantino-fest by touting various rabbinical endorsements and holding a recent screening at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. Others are being less subtle, of course–Up in the Air has tried in its “for your consideration” marketing to be less about the film’s message than about positioning director Jason Reitman as an auteur in the mold of Billy Wilder.

The deadline for Academy members to submit their ballots was Tuesday evening, so it’s all over but the bean counting and, come Sunday night, the statue wagging. And, remember, it’s just an honor to be nominated.

rsiklos@observer.com