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Posts Tagged ‘Weighted Oscar Ballot’

New Oscar Rules Hurt ‘Avatar’ and Help ‘The Hurt Locker’

February 25, 2010 1 comment

The Academy Awards are ten days away and the speculation over which film will take home the coveted Best Picture Oscar has reached a fever pitch. In the months leading up to the nominations, there was a lot of buzz that “Precious” or “Up In the Air” might have a shot at taking home the Best Picture award. But make no mistake, it’s a stone cold lock that either “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” or “Inglorious Basters” will win the award (with a heavy emphasis on the first two).

So which film will win? In previous years I would have given the edge to “Avatar” because in a traditional five film field, “Avatar” would most likely garner the most first place votes and this earn the golden statue. But this year there are two important developments to the Best Picture race. First, after several years of debate, the Academy increased the field of nominees from five to ten. The rationale behind this decision was that the addition of more “popular” movies (aka those that do well at the box office as opposed to small critically-acclaimed films[read: most Best Picture winners]) would add excitement to the show and boost viewership. The second development for this year is that the Best Picture category will use a weighted ballot to decide the winner. Since the weighted ballot announcement was made last year, there has been a fair amount of confusion with regards to how the voting will work, and how it might affect the outcome of this year’s race. I spend some time below trying to elucidate the peculiarities of the weighted ballot, and also examine why the weighted ballot is crucial to determining this year’s winner.

The number one misconception with the weighted Oscar ballot is that it will use a “1-10 point system” for scoring. If you hear the term “weighted ballot,” you might assume that an Academy voter will rank the ten movies, with a vote for first place good for ten points, second place good for nine points etc., and that whatever movie has the most points wins. This is not the case. The weighted ballot system used by the Academy this year is identical in practice to the contemporary voting system known as “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV). The voter still ranks all ten movies on his or her ballot, but then a progression of eliminations and vote transfers is used to determine the winner by calculating who received the highest ranking from the most voters. There are several advantages to IRV. One, the voter can vote for the movie they truly believe is the best without worrying that their vote will go to waste, because if that movie is eventually eliminated, their vote will transfer to the next highest movie from their list that’s still in the field. The second advantage is that the winner under IRV has to pass the 50% threshold in order to win, and thus wins with the approval of a majority of the voters (stay with me…). Essentially, IRV prevents a movie that barely musters a plurality (say 13% of the vote in a 10-movie field) from winning. Third, IRV prevents spoilers from rising to the top. Hypothetically, if Star Trek, District 9 and Avatar were all nominees, many voters might split their votes among these sci-fi flicks, thus allowing a movie in a completely different genre, such as “Precious” from benefiting from the vote split.

Before delving into the Best Picture IRV situation, let’s look at a simple IRV election. In this election there are 1,000 voters, thus 501 votes are needed to win. Voters rank the four candidates on their ballot and the ballots are submitted. Remember all of the rounds below happen almost instantaneously (but consecutively, not simultaneously). The computer runs through each round and there is no additional voting by the voter, only a progression down their list if necessary.

In Round 1 no one captured the needed 501 first place votes. Jennifer received the fewest votes so she is thus eliminated and her 169 votes are distributed based on who her voters listed as their 2nd choice. These 2nd choice votes on Jennifer’s ballot now become 1st choice votes for other candidates and they are transfered over. Again in Round 2, no one captured the required 501 votes, and this time Jermaine had the fewest votes so he is eliminated and his votes are redistributed (note: the candidates receiving these transfer votes will be Jermaine’s voters 2nd choice or Jennifer’s voters 3rd choice). In the third round, Jill passes the 501 vote threshold and is thus the winner. Although she didn’t have the most first round votes, she was approved by a majority of the voters thus is the winner.

With the mock election example above in mind let’s move on to the real deal…the Best Picture race. This year there are ten films competing for the Oscar. There are approximately 6,000 Oscar voters (give or take a few hundred) so a film needs to garner 3,001 votes in the example below in order to win. The colored tabs are designed to help the reader follow what’s happening in the voting. A movie’s color will correspond to the round where they were eliminated and also to where their votes are transfered to in the subsequent round.

The general overall theme of this example is that “Avatar” will capture the most 1st-place votes on the first ballot, but voters who do not rank “Avatar” at #1 will tend to put the film on the lower part of their ballot (#5, #6, #7). MORE Academy voters will rank “Hurt Locker” at #1, #2, or #3. Therefore, as films are knocked out in the early rounds, because “Hurt Locker” appears in the #2 and #3 slot on a lot of ballots, knocked-out films will see more of their votes transfer to “Hurt Locker” than “Avatar.” While I could do two or three pages with my arguments for why this will happen, the biggest reason is because “Avatar” is a “love it or hate it” film. Go to any message board, read 100 reviews, and you’ll see that the population writ large thinks “Avatar” is either the next-generation of film, or merely a special-effects driven movie with little plot or character development that happened to be a box office smash. With so many voters either loving or hating Avatar, it reasons that the ballots may look something like the below:

Back to the race…remember all of the numbers in the example, aside from the 6,000, are fictional but have a factual basis (they aren’t drawn out of thin air). In the first few rounds, “Blind Side,” “An Education,” and “A Serious Man,” all films with little or no Oscar buzz, are knocked out and their votes predictably transfer disproportionately to Avatar, Locker, and Basterds (but with more of a Locker bent). “Up” had a little buzz at one point, but in the end it’s an animated film that will not finish in the top 5. Its votes shift over mostly to Avatar, Locker, and Basterds. In Round 5, “District 9” is eliminated and I make an allowance for the fact that because Avatar is also a sci-fi film, more of D9’s votes will transfer over to Avatar.

“Up in the Air” was the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar back in November but has faded a lot in the last few months. Why did I transfer over so many Air votes to Locker? Because half the field has been eliminated, any Air vote that had films like “Up” or “A Serious Man” at the #2 or #3 spot cannot transfer to those films, and thus has to transfer to a surviving film. And because Avatar is a love it or hate it film, it’s more likely that most of the Avatar votes are already spoken for at this point, whereas the “Hurt Locker” votes are not. Additionally, “Inglorious Basterds” begins to come into play here. I think that Basterds is less “love it or hate it” than Avatar and thus will see a surge in votes in these later rounds. So “Up in the Air” gets knocked out in 6th place, and the same voting pattern emerges with “Precious,” another film with strong pre-nomination Oscar buzz. A disproportionate number of Precious’ votes go to Locker and to Basterds and we’re down to the final 3. Note that at this point “Hurt Locker” has gained 888 votes through transfers, while “Avatar” has gained only 567.

There has been a big Oscar push by Basterd’s producer Harvey Weinstein in recent weeks to promote the film as a viable alternative to Locker and Avatar. And to some degree, the publicity has been working, as many analysts cite Basterd’s ability to be a spoiler and potentially win the whole thing if the movie can make it onto enough ballots in the majority of the #2 and #3 slots. While I think that Basterds does have a fighting chance, ultimately it will not win the Best Picture prize. But I also think that if you played the “One of these things is not like the other” game with the three films, most voters would put Locker and Basterds in the same bucket and put Avatar in a seperate bucket. Therefore, when Round 8 comes around and Basterds is knocked out, more than 60% of the Basterds votes will transfer over to Locker. The net result of this is that “Hurt Locker” will go over the 50% + 1 threshhold and win the Best Picture Oscar.

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Position disclosure: I was short 75 shares of Avatar from an average price of 58. I covered 30 shares around 37 for a $63 profit. I continue to be 45 shares short on Avatar ($189 to win $261). Additionally, I have $100 bet with a sports book on Hurt Locker at +120 odds. Finally, as a hedge I own 20 shares of Inglorious Basters at an average of 6.1 ($12 to win $188). If the Avatar price gets closer to 30 by next Sunday I will cover all shorts and bet more on the Hurt Locker at +120 odds. I will also add to my Inglorious Basterds hedge.

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