When it comes to understanding the new voting process for tomorrow night's Academy Awards, think of Stéphane Dion as an Inglourious Basterd.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has changed the voting process for best picture, the most prestigious category, requiring its 5,777 members to rank the 10 nominated films in order of preference, instead of simply marking their number one choice. If no film receives more than 2,889 number-one votes - or 50.1 per cent - the film in last place is eliminated from the race and its ballots are redistributed according to their second place film. This process is repeated, going down the list of third, fourth and fifth place films, until one emerges with the majority of the votes.
Preferential voting, a system sometimes used in elections (as well as the 2006 Liberal leadership convention that saw Mr. Dion win a come-from-behind victory) encourages a consensus rather than a winner-take-all approach.
Voters often cast ballots for the two most likely top candidates to make sure their vote "counts." For the Academy, it removes the possibility of a film winning best picture with, say, just 11 per cent of support. But it could also pave the way for a major upset.
The theory goes that a film like The Hurt Locker , which few people actively dislike, or Inglourious Basterds , which will likely land as voters' third or fourth pick, could prosper. Avatar , meanwhile, which is much more polarizing among the film community, could have its chances hurt by the process.
"It's possible that the movie that wins is going to start out in fourth place," said Hamish Marshall, research director of Angus Reid, who has studied preferential voting systems. "I predict Avatar won't get it. It will do well on the first ballot and then fade. The people who don't like it really don't like it."
No one expects a clear winner this year, and Mr. Marshall said preferential voting gets increasingly unpredictable when there are many viable options. So the question is, if you're the kind of voter who's passionate about an underdog like The Blind Side , what would be your number two and three choices?
Screenwriter Howard Rodman, who was invited to join the academy last year, says the new system has piqued his interest both as a consumer, and as someone with a vote at this year's awards. "The system seems Byzantine - you'd need a Nate Silver [a famous statistician]to figure it all out - but in essence it's like an election with a runoff if no one achieves a majority.
"I don't think it skews the results one way or the other. It does give more legitimacy to the victor, preventing a situation where a film with 10 per cent plus one vote walks off with the statuette."
However Michael Malloy, a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto, says the new system has little to do with fairness, and more to do with increasing the number of best picture nominees. "The reason for switching is entirely because of the problem with vote-splitting," he said. "When the number of nominees is increased, the likelihood of vote-splitting problems is increased ... The potential [for this]with 10 nominees is too high."
Last year, Chris Volinsky, director of statistics research at AT&T, was part of the team that won the million-dollar Netflix Prize, a contest designed to improve the rental service's ability to predict how much someone will enjoy a movie based on their past preferences. To figure it out, Netflix provided 100 million film ratings, provided by members.
Always game for a good statistical puzzle, he attempted to use ratings he found on public websites to calculate similarities in preference for this year's Oscar nominated films. "The two movies that were the most similar in the data I downloaded were Up and Precious ," he said, but added he was using such a small sample that his findings were not statistically valid.
The Producers Guild, one of the more reliable indicators of best picture category, employed the preferential voting system this year and the result was a win for The Hurt Locker . The system was also used by the Academy in 1939, when the candidates included Dark Victory , Goodbye , Mr. Chips , Love Affair , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , Ninotchka , Of Mice and Men,Stagecoach , The Wizard of Oz,Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind , which emerged the winner.
In the world of politics, Mr. Dion isn't alone in having benefited from preferential voting systems. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty benefited from preferential voting at his party's 1997 leadership convention, which he won after placing fourth on the first and second ballots. British Columbia employed preferential voting in two provincial elections in the 1950s, both of which were won by the Social Credit party.
In politics, Mr. Marshall says there's a hierarchy of choices based on political preference, but with film, it's impossible to know how people will rank the nominees.
"If I had to bet, I'd say ultimately The Hurt Locker 's going to get it, because it will be everybody's second or third choice," he said. "Ultimately that could be enough to win."