The Best Picture Oscar Race May Puzzle Bettors

Oscar statues on display at the Time Warner Center.

More films have a shot at the Best Picture Oscar this year. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Tamiko Moon loves the Oscars. Like millions of Americans, she hosts a viewing party every year, which in her case has turned into a fundraiser for a health charity. But Moon's still not ready to guess which movie will take the top prize at the annual Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

"The 10 nominees, coupled with the new voting system, do make it harder to guess," says Moon, who works for a vision care benefits company in California. "It's a bit of a crapshoot."

No Slum Dunk

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the field of Best Picture nominees from five to 10 this year for the first time since 1943. Most believe the intent was to ensure the inclusion of more blockbusters. That would goose TV ratings for Sunday's awards broadcast and help promote more films.

"The whole point of it was so that they could put the 'Best Picture nominee' advertisement on the poster or the [DVD] box," says J.D. Geddes, who works as "just a drone" at Video Station in Boulder, Colo.

Last year, Batman couldn't even get into the game against an orphan from the slums of Mumbai. The critically acclaimed blockbuster The Dark Knight was easily 2008's most popular film, but it got shut out of the running for the top prize. Slumdog Millionaire , one of four movies that had yet to break the $100 million mark when it was nominated for Best Picture, ended up being a "slum dunk."

This year, there's no clear-cut favorite. And expanding the field did not make it any more likely that the most popular film would win the top honor.

Instant-Runoff What?

The reason is that along with the switch to 10 nominees, the academy changed its voting procedure as well. With such a large field, the academy worried that a relatively unpopular dark horse could prevail with a tiny share of the vote. That's why this year's best picture will be chosen using instant-runoff voting.

Here's how it works: Members of the academy will rank their selections, picking not just their favorite films, but second and third choices as well.

If no film takes more than 50 percent of the first-place votes, they just keep counting ballots. The movies with the least support get thrown out, one by one. Let's say A Serious Man is the first to go. Whatever movies Serious Man's supporters marked as their second-place pick now take its votes. The process continues until one film has a majority.

"They rightly gauged that with 10 movies in the mix, there's rarely going to be an absolute sense of which is going to be the majority choice," says Rob Richie of FairVote, which has consulted with the academy about its voting system. "You won't get an outlandish upset."

Avatar's Ceiling Of Support

That means no more Crash-style surprises. But the most popular picture might not win, either.

Avatar started the awards season as the front-runner. With $700 million in domestic receipts and more than double that take worldwide, Avatar is one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Still, not everyone loves it. Avatar may be a technological marvel, but many think its storyline is weak. "Avatar is a polarizing film," says Phil Wallace, founder of AwardsPicks.com, a site that helps people organize betting pools.

Under the old system, Avatar could easily have won with, say, 40 percent of the vote. Now, that won't be enough. Hurt Locker can eke out a victory as the second choice of more voters (although its producer violated rules with an e-mail plea for votes last month and has been barred from the ceremony).

That's what happened with the Producers Guild of America awards, which also switched to instant-runoff voting this year. Hurt Locker staged an upset and has since swept most of the major awards, except the Golden Globes.

"The thing that I thought might hurt Avatar at the Oscars — that the voters who didn't put it in the top spot on their ballots might rank it low down, hurting its ability to reach the required 50 percent –- might well have resulted in the upset PGA victory for Hurt Locker," Steve Pond wrote on his awards coverage blog, "The Odds."

"Because it is a preferential system, your second or third choice becomes almost as important as your first choice," says Alex Costakis, managing director of the Hollywood Stock Exchange, a site where traders can buy and sell shares in actors and movies.

Avoid Your Favorites

If serious bettors have studied up on the effects of the new Best Picture voting method, most people are probably clueless. People filling out their Oscar pools this week are more likely to rely on tried and true methods — picking the movies that have won earlier awards, those that enjoy the lowest odds on British bookmaking sites, and movies with the strongest buzz on entertainment blogs.

But, as with any other form of betting, it's a mistake to follow your heart.

"Once in a while, people pick the movies they like the best," Phil Wallace says. "Then, when they finish near the bottom, they realize that isn't a very good strategy."

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