Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

Oscars 2010: Best picture voting changes explained

Best picture nominees announcement
Actress Anne Hathaway (l) announced the best picture nominees last month

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Hands up, Hollywood - who understands the changes to the voting rules for this year's best picture Oscar?

Unless you happen to work for official Academy Award accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, you'd be forgiven for being confused.

For the first time since 1944, 10 movies instead of just five are in contention for the evening's highest accolade.

Having twice as many best picture contenders as normal, though, has necessitated a major change in the way the Academy's 6,000 members cast their votes.

Normally, the best picture winner would be selected using the same "first past the post" system by which the results of all the other prizes are determined.

The film that gets the most votes wins. The ones that get fewer don't. It's as simple as Forrest Gump.

If you expand the field, though, it becomes much more difficult to get a clear winner using the old method.

Oscar ballot
Academy members have until 2 March to complete and return their ballots

Indeed, under the old regulations it would be possible for a film to be crowned winner with as little as 11% of the votes cast.

So the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has come up with an alternative method - a preferential system that enables votes to be transferred from one film to another.

Instead of choosing a single winner, Academy members have been asked to rank the 10 titles on their ballot form from 1 to 10.

Their ballots will then be sorted into 10 piles, based on which films they have placed in pole position.

If no movie wins more than 50% of the vote - a statistical unlikelihood - the film with the least number of first-choice votes will be knocked out of contention.

Its ballots will then be redistributed among the remaining candidates, based on which movies their owners have ranked in second place.

If there is still no movie with a 51% majority, the procedure will be repeated with the movie ranked ninth. Then eighth. Then seventh.

Eventually one movie will have an unassailable lead - even if it takes second, third or even fourth choices to achieve it.

Confused? You're not alone. Indeed, it's possible that half the stars in Tinseltown are now scratching their impeccably coiffeured heads.

For their benefit and yours, then, let's try and make the process a little easier to comprehend.

2010 Oscar nominations

This graph ranks the 10 best picture nominees according to the overall number of nominations they have in all categories at this year's event.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the number of first-choice votes they receive will be in direct proportion to their nominations tally.

Were that the case, science-fiction epic Avatar and Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker would have the largest amount of ballots without either achieving an overall majority.

Using this as the model, The Blind Side and A Serious Man would be automatically eliminated and their ballots assigned to whichever films their owners have ranked in second place.

If a ballot for A Serious Man ranked The Blind Side second, or vice versa, they would then be allocated to the film their owners ranked third.

Under this speculative scenario, British film An Education would be ruled out next, followed by District 9 and Up.

Harvey Weinstein and Quentin Tarantino
Weinstein (l) thinks the rules changes may work in his film's favour

Once again, the ballots in their favour would be redistributed to another nominated picture - excluding, of course, those already eliminated from the process.

Sooner or later, one movie will have more than half the ballots cast and be named this year's best picture.

Avatar and The Hurt Locker are considered the front runners, though under the new rules a victory for either is anything but certain.

Indeed, Inglourious Basterds producer Harvey Weinstein believes the new "Oscar math" could work in his film's favour.

"There's room for this movie to win best picture," he said last month. "It's one of those great upsets in the making."

Critics argue that a so-called "instant run-off" system make it possible for a film to win even if it has less first-choice votes than another.

They also suggest it increases the likelihood of a safe, compromise choice winning when there are better titles in contention.

Organisers say the new system will mean a winner will be selected by popular consensus. They also say having 10 best picture candidates is an experiment that can easily be reversed.

In the end, though, only PricewaterhouseCoopers will know if the changes have been a success, or if it's all just a load of ballots.

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