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Reading the voters’ minds

Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview

The ultimate value of Pi. A unified field theory. The recipe for Coca-Cola. They’re all kid’s stuff compared to what Hollywood looks for around this time each year: An equation that arrives at best picture.

Every awards season, there are movies that add up on paper — 2010’s examples include “The Ghost Writer,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Fair Game,” “Conviction” and “Please Give” — but that never quite compute.

Not so surprisingly, insiders say, the answer comes down to math. Math and passion. Passion and math.

“You need 300 No. 1 picks on an Academy ballot,” says one veteran publicist and Academy member, “which translates into perhaps 20% of the AMPAS membership.” (“It may only be 250,” added another, “depending on whether everyone votes.”) In other words, it’s not enough to be a film everyone likes: You have to be a movie that just enough people love.

“Look back at last year’s top 10 lists,” says Strategy PR prexy Cynthia Swartz. “Every film that was a potential best picture winner got a certain number of No. 1 votes. The system rewards films that are people’s favorites, even if they are only favorites for a small minority rather than a film that is very well liked by all, but isn’t a top choice for anyone.”

Which could mean great things, one studio strategist says, for a film like “The Tree of Life.”

“There are people who just don’t get it,” she says. “And there are those who think it’s a visual poem. It could get those No. 1 votes.”

And if no one has anything bad to say about a movie? “That’s the movie,” she says, “that’s going to get hurt.”

Most insiders to whom Variety spoke asked for anonymity, because they’re either voting or trolling for votes. But the consensus seems to be that Oscar’s new voting process — which could lead to 10 nominees, but will more likely result in seven — exacerbates the “passion” issue, even though all the movies that went traction-free last year had other, more traditional problems as well: A release date that was too early; a campaign that was too cheap; a director who was too controversial (Roman Polanski). Or, in the case of, say, “Never Let Me Go,” subject matter that was too dark.

“But sometimes Oscar voters go dark,” says Dave Karger, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. “With ‘Monster,’ say, or ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ the hook was the transformational performance of the actresses.”

And there has to be that hook, Karger insists. “I get the sense that the Academy goes for films that really have memorable peaks and valleys,” he says. “If there’s one thing that nominees share, in a way, it’s the showy moments counterbalanced with quieter moments. ‘The Ghost Writer’ was great but didn’t have those peaks and valleys, not like ‘The Hurt Locker,’ say, or ‘The Artist,’ which I’m very bullish about.”

Veteran Oscar strategist Tony Angellotti says, “Sometimes it’s as simple as a narrative that is well managed and arresting. Other times, it’s the press taking on the role of advocates on behalf of films as they debut at film festivals. And still other times it’s the nature of the competition itself that allows for so-called ‘dark horses’ to linger and thrive. It’s never the same scenario, year to year, which is what makes it fascinating.”

And exasperating: ” ‘Babel’ was a movie that was divisive, you loved it or you didn’t,” says the studio strategist. “But the ones who loved it put it in the No.1 spot.”

“Crash,” which beat out the favorite “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006, did so, as one old Hollywood hand put it, because, “we all voted against bigots, thinking we’re not. It made us feel better about ourselves.” Instead, of course, they were portrayed as homophobes.

“It’s strange that there’s no perfect formula to turn a pedigree movie into an Oscar movie,” says Mark Harris, Oscar columnist for the website Grantland and contributing editor to New York magazine. “You need some combination of critical recognition and audience recognition and I think the X factor is the thing that makes Academy members move the DVD to the top of the screener pile.”

The factors? “How long is it?” “Is it subtitled?” “I hear it’s depressing.” “I don’t know anyone in it.” They can add up to no one watching or not enough.

Occasionally, a movie defies the math, like “Winter’s Bone.”

“People decided they had to watch it,” says Harris. “It was a good campaign, but I think Academy members love a movie that they hear exceeds expectations. ‘Winter’s Bone’ had no particular pedigree, but it became a movie you had to see.”

In fact, he added, a pedigree can work against you. “If a film has all the credentials on paper, and critical buzz is ‘It’s OK,’ then the whole idea of pedigree can hurt its Oscar chances. ”

As can over-hype. All these movies get handicapped from June to September, Harris says. “And then you get ‘Angela’s Ashes’ or ‘Snow Falling on Cedars.’ You can feel the balloon deflate. There’s that weird 11th-hour thing that turns ‘I can’t wait’ to ‘I don’t care.’ ”

And as everyone agrees, there’s the question of box office — not so much because money equals quality, but because of the psychology of success.

“Everybody loves a winner,” Harris says. “And when it doesn’t feel like a winner, it doesn’t get a chance to become a winner.”

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