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Instant-Runoff Voting Comes to the Oscar Race

13 February 2010

This is from Hendrik Hertzberg’s column in February 15 issue of The New Yorker:

The Academy Award nominations were announced last week, and two movies came out on top: “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker,” with nine nods apiece. At the box office, however, the score is not tied. “The Hurt Locker” has taken in a little more than sixteen million dollars. “Avatar” took in eleven million. The difference is, the figure for “The Hurt Locker” represents the totality of its receipts in the seven months since it was released. The “Avatar” number represents only the most recent weekend’s take. In Italy. ….

Everyone seems to agree that the director, James Cameron, and his legions of artists and technicians have created a thrillingly immersive, lovingly detailed, surprisingly believable alternative world. There’s been less unanimity about the movie’s “message.” Liberals are unhappy with the white-guy-rescues-the-natives aspect of the story, though this aspect surely has less to do with racism per se than with Cameron’s reliance on old-movie plot devices. Conservatives complain that the picture’s vision of the future (the action takes place in the year 2154) is overly hospitable to century-and-a-half-old lefty talking points….The movie is pro-rain forest, anti-privatization, and pro-scientist. Cameron knows a lot about science, but he’s happy to bag it when necessary, as suggested in this colloquy, from a recent interview with a men’s magazine:

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?
CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.

But enough with the cahiers du cinéma. Who’s going to win Best Picture? Among Oscar touts, the consensus is that it’ll be one of the two top nomination-garnerers, with “Avatar” the heavy favorite. Brandon Gray, at boxofficemojo.com, writes that “good box office has historically been key to winning Best Picture, which usually goes to the movie with the first or second highest gross among the nominees: that would favor ‘Avatar’ over ‘The Hurt Locker.’ ” Given that the latter’s gross is the second lowest among the ten nominees, amounting to less than one per cent of the former’s, you can say that again.

Even so, there is a distinct possibility of an upset. To understand why requires drilling down into the mechanics of voting systems. It’ll only hurt for a minute. From 1946 until last year, the voting worked the way Americans are most familiar with. Five pictures were nominated. If you were a member of the Academy, you put an “X” next to the name of your favorite. The picture with the most votes won. Nice and simple, though it did mean that a movie could win even if a solid majority of the eligible voters—in theory, as many as seventy-nine per cent of them—didn’t like it. Those legendary PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants don’t release the totals, but this or something like it has to have happened in the past, probably many times.

This year, the Best Picture list was expanded, partly to make sure that at least a couple of blockbusters would be on it. (The biggest grosser of 2008, “The Dark Knight,” was one of the better Batman adventures, but it didn’t make the cut.) To forestall a victory for some cinematic George Wallace or Ross Perot, the Academy switched to a different system. Members—there are around fifty-eight hundred of them—are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting’s over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters’ second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there’s still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters’ second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty per cent.

This scheme, known as preference voting or instant-runoff voting, doesn’t necessarily get you the movie (or the candidate) with the most committed supporters, but it does get you a winner that a majority can at least countenance. It favors consensus. Now here’s why it may also favor “The Hurt Locker.” A lot of people like “Avatar,” obviously, but a lot don’t—too cold, too formulaic, too computerized, too derivative. (Remember “Dances with Wolves”? “Jurassic Park”? Everything by Hayao Miyazaki?) “Avatar” is polarizing. So is James Cameron. He may have fattened the bank accounts of a sizable bloc of Academy members—some three thousand people drew “Avatar” paychecks—but that doesn’t mean that they all long to recrown him king of the world. (As he has admitted, his people skills aren’t the best.) These factors could push “Avatar” toward the bottom of many a ranked-choice ballot.

On the other hand, few people who have seen “The Hurt Locker”—a real Iraq War story, not a sci-fi allegory—actively dislike it, and many profoundly admire it…. It will likely be the second or third preference of voters whose first choice is one of the other “small” films that have been nominated…. ♦

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