Oscar's Fuzzy Math

New Best Picture voting scheme could make losers winners

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009  |  Updated 12:00 AM EDT
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The Academy's new system for selecting nominees spells more confusion and disappointment.

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The odds makers are going to have a heck of a time setting the line for the Best Picture race – the Academy Awards' new voting system could make picking a winner a crapshoot.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' first surprise gambit came in June when it announced plans to double the Best Picture field to 10. This week, the Academy unveiled a new balloting scheme: voters will be asked to rank the 10 movies in order of preference. The new formula will give heavy weight to second and third choice picks when no one movie gets more than 50 percent of first-place votes.

The radical changes follow a year in which a critical and fan favorite – "The Dark Knight," the second biggest box office success in Hollywood history – didn't notch a Best Picture nomination. The snub, for many, reinforced an image of Academy voters as a stodgy bunch of snobs who don't care about public taste – or whether anybody bothers to watch the Oscars telecast.

But the new system may do little to bring sanity to the process – and could spell more confusion and disappointment. It's possible a flick that didn’t get the most first-place votes could sneak in as the winner.

That a similar voting system is used to choose the contenders is hardly reassuring, especially considering how the nomination process fizzled last year. Doubling the field to 10 already means the Hollywood hype machine will be slamming into overdrive, as studios promote films that ordinarily wouldn’t have a chance for the statue.

For movie moguls, the Oscars are about bragging rights and making money. For fans, the awards are about gawking at celebrities, getting caught up in the drama of winners and losers, and occasionally having their taste in movies affirmed.

The Academy Awards should be about celebrating and rewarding quality, and ensuring a sense of fairness even if the fan favorites don't always win. Wagering on a new voting system that makes the Electoral College seem like a model of direct democracy sounds like a sucker’s bet.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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