Voters Beware: The Dangers of the Oscar Ballot

Attention, Oscar voters: Nomination balloting runs through Jan. 8, and you better be careful when making your choices. Yes, I’m sure you are always careful, but this year, it’s more important than usual.

If you really love a contender, you need to put it in the No. 1 slot. If you’re rooting for a film or individual that has been gathering awards, don’t conclude they’re shoo-ins: Front-runners need just as much support as underdogs.

Last year, Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were absent from Oscar’s five director nominees. Maybe they didn’t get enough votes; maybe they were hurt by other factors, like mudslinging. But it’s also possible that many voters thought, “Eh, Affleck and Bigelow will get enough votes, they don’t need me.” We will never know if dark horses like Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Michael Haneke (“Amour”) received nominations because of overwhelming enthusiasm or an overwhelming misperception by members of the directors branch.

The order of your favorites is all-important because your second and third choices may not count. That’s always true, but especially in a year when there are no front-runners and every category is overcrowded. To get a best-picture nomination, a film needs a certain number of No. 1 votes. (You have to trust me on this. I could explain it to you, but it would take about 300 words and your head would hurt when I was finished.)

In a year when there is a front-runner like “Gone With the Wind,” it will get plenty of ballots putting it at No. 1. Once a film has passed the requisite number needed, the execs at PricewaterhouseCooper will look at the other ballots that had put “GWTW” at No. 1; since the film is already guaranteed a nomination, those ballots would be wasted, so the PWC folks will look at the No. 2 choices on that ballot.

But there is no “GWTW” this year. There are at least 15 films that are credible contenders in multiple categories. When the love is so widespread, voters need to weigh their choices carefully. So you may say “I loved three films equally. I can’t choose.” But don’t mistakenly believe that if you put your favorites in the top three slots, all will get attention. That No. 1 slot may be the only one that matters.

A final thought to scare all of you: The best picture race may be tighter than you realize. In the past two years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences offered the option of five to 10 best pic contenders, depending on how many films got enough points. In both years, the tally was nine. This year, people are assuming that there will be 10 because there are so many good films. But as the Gershwins said, it ain’t necessarily so.

PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants reviewed the ballots of Ye Olden Days of Oscar (i.e., 2008 and earlier) when there were only five best-pic contenders. They went back several years and concluded that if the option had been available of five-to-10 possibilities, no year would have seen more than nine films.

So this year’s race is even more distressing: 15 contenders for nine or (gasp!) eight slots. It’s a tough world, gang. So vote with your heart,  don’t vote strategically.

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