Long before “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “The Tree of Life” were announced as best picture Oscar nominees, awards campaigners were saying the final outcome for the somewhat polarizing films would come down to the passion vote.

Although the notion of the sheer power of a voter’s emotional connection to a film helping it get the industry’s highest honor is a rather charming, romantic way of looking at the race, the term refers more to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ preferential voting system than the taste of its membership. With ballots due to PwC in less than a week, passion can be all that separates the nominees from the winners.

In fact, a small but emphatic minority championing a film to fellow members might not be enough to make sure every voter sees it before casting a ballot, but it is enough to take that same film to victory.

Here’s how it works: Instead of a film needing a majority of votes to win best picture, the preferential system requires each voter to rank the nominees from one to nine. The ballots are then sorted by pictures listed in the No. 1 position. If one film ends up with more than 50% of No. 1 rankings in the first round, the voting is over.

But that’s generally not what happens. Instead, the film with the least number of votes is eliminated from contention, and each of the No. 2 choices on those ballots are reallocated to the appropriate films.

The process continues from the smallest vote-getter up until one film has reached the majority threshold. Theoretically, one film with about 300 passionate No. 1 voters can come out the other side with a trophy based reallocated ballots.

It doesn’t fit in with most people’s idea of democracy, but the system wasn’t set up to represent a consensus.

“The Academy system rewards a range of tastes,” says one veteran awards consultant.

The key is finding and engaging the passionate voter, and there’s no psychographic roadmap.

“That’s like asking if there are specific kinds of people who like movies,” says another consultant. “People relate to movies with their own personal perspective. You can’t put your pin on why.”

Campaigning can help a film stick in a voter’s mind, and the practice goes back to the second ceremony when Mary Pickford, a founding member of the Academy, invited voters to Pickfair for tea in an effort to earn an Oscar for “Coquette.”

But passion is a real motivator, motivating people to talk about a film and to urge others to vote for a film, which can be crucial in the preferential system.

“People like to spread votes around when they like more than one film,” a veteran consultant says. “This year could be anyone’s.”

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