Projection: Oscar – New Rules, New Host, New Movies

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Welcome back from the murky onslaught of press reports from Toronto. The major early-fall festivals are done, concluding with a feverish ten days of big movie inundation at TIFF, which was as full as ever of Oscar hopefuls. And as we emerge from the hysteria…the storyline is less clear than it has been in recent years. There was no consensus favorite coming out of Toronto – nothing resembling last year’s The King’s Speech or 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. No game-changers of note. Clearly, the “winners,” so to speak, as we move into the post-Toronto phase of the Oscar push, are Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, neither of which actually debuted in Toronto. The biggest purchase out of Toronto was Sony Classics picking up Steve McQueen’s Shame…also not a Toronto premiere. A couple of movies that played Toronto were released theatrically…and we’ll get to those in a little bit.

Moving forward, I think this is a good time to discuss a couple “new” elements to this year’s Oscars. We have a new host, a bit of news that came and went with a few brief nit-picky discussions, but faded in the midst of all the festival chatter. And most importantly, the Oscars are operating under a new system of rules, most specifically related to the way Best Picture nominees are chosen.

New Rules

Technically the “new rules” are “old news,” since they were first unveiled in Oscar’s off-season, back in June. But as we film buffs gear up for the season ahead – and the huge contingent of Oscar pundits, myself included, start cranking out weekly lists of nomination predictions – now is a good time to remind ourselves of how this new process changes the way nominees are determined. Literally every one of the full “prediction charts” I came across before we entered the festival phase earlier this month listed ten films in the Best Picture column. And really, since we are so early in the process with so many films still in legitimate contention, that’s fair enough – ten is a good general number when making an early list of possible nominees. However, I will state here and now, in column inches that cannot heretofore be altered…well, they actually can be altered or even erased, but trust me, I won’t renege…I do not believe there will be ten Best Picture nominees.

Lest we forget, according to the new rules, there is no fixed number of nominees. There could be ten, or there could be five, as there was for decades leading up to the 2009 season. Or there could be any number in between. According to the new procedure for counting and weighing nomination votes, there will be no less than five, no more than ten, and could, in theory, be six, seven, eight, or nine Best Picture nominees, thus making it infuriatingly impossible for me or anyone else to fully nail down which films will ultimately make the cut. We simply will not know until the nominations are revealed.

In years past, ballots would be placed in piles according to their first-place votes, at which point a standard number for automatic nomination would be determined. Then the lowest film on the list would be eliminated, and that film’s votes would be redistributed to each ballot’s second-place film (or highest-ranked film still in the running). The process would continue round-by-round until the desired number of nominees was reached. The way I understand it, it would take several rounds to reach the ten-nominee requirement of the past two years.

Under the new rules, ballots are once again placed in piles based on first-place votes. But this time, a film must earn 5% of first place votes just to be considered eligible for nomination. Some films will garner that percentage right off the bat, while others will arrive at the total after a single round of redistribution of lower-placed films. That’s right – a single round of redistribution. It’s a significantly streamlined process that, rather than aiming for a specific number of films, sets a bar that any film must reach in order to be nominated. Thus the important note that the process could lead to a varying number of nominees – and based on research of recent Academy voting trends by AMPAS accountants (read: vote-counting firm extraordinaire) PricewaterhouseCoopers, that number will land somewhere between five and ten nominees. My guess, based on the exclusivity of the nomination requirements, is that the number will skew closer to the smaller end of the spectrum.

I’ve done my best to explain the process, but as for how precisely the numbers are crunched…I’m still at a loss. Most of us are. Steve Pond over at The Wrap explained the process as well as it could be explained, even going so far as to conduct an experimental vote using last year’s collection of critic Top Ten lists.

One thing I do know about the math: it means that Academy members are no longer forced to push themselves to the max. They will submit an ordered list of films they truly love, with additional weight given to their first choice. It’s a more cutthroat process, but it should reveal the true preferences of Academy members. The nomination process now puts an emphasis on the passionate choices, in contrast to the past two years, when emphasis was based on wide inclusion.

To that end, the rule change is essentially an intentional move away from “The Ten,” which itself was a move away from “The Five.” The inclusion of ten nominees was always intended to be inclusive – it was basically an apology for not nominating Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight among The Five in 2009. Now, this move is likely an apology for nominating The Blind Side among The Ten in 2010.

My final take: this will be a fascinating shift that could alter the way an Academy member votes and will certainly alter the way films campaign for Best Picture consideration. It also throws a huge wrench into the Oscar prognostication game, which is pretty damn cool. I’m not sure how I feel about the abbreviated vote-counting process, since it seems like it will automatically exclude a sizable number of ballots, but on the other hand, it places clear emphasis on passion from voters, which is all anyone can ask for – even if we don’t always agree with their choices.

There will certainly be casualties, mainly on the extreme ends of the spectrum. We likely won’t see any mass-popular movies among the nominees – no Blind Side, no District 9, and likely no more awards buzz circulating surprise box-office hits. And, it will likely be a goodbye to the fringe indies that were a positive inclusion to The Ten – depending on how the votes shake down, we won’t be seeing movies like Winter’s Bone or An Education nominated anymore. It will also make it harder for animated films to make the cut…so it might be a while before we see that recently-automatic “Pixar slot” get filled again. We will, I think, see a group of mainly down-the-middle “Oscar Movies” nominated – more than five, but definitely less than ten. Based on the new rules, it seems very difficult to ever reach ten, though as many as nine doesn’t seem impossible. At this point in the season – and we are really too early for this to be significant – I would guess we will end up with somewhere in the 6-8 range once the nominations are revealed.

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I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.