There could be as many as 10 Best Picture nominees at the Oscar show next February.
But there won't be.
That's my prediction, at any rate.
A good number of the Oscar-related conversations I have circle around to the same question: How many nominees do you think we'll see?
And when I say that I'm guessing it'll be seven, the most common reaction from Oscar consultants, Academy members, studio folks or other Oscar-watchers is, "Yeah, that's what I think. Seven or eight."
That question became a burning one over the summer, when the Academy changed the rules and went from a guaranteed slate of 10 nominees to a variable number that could be as few as five or as many as 10.
Under the new rules, a film must receive five percent of the vote to secure a Best Picture nomination. Voters are asked to rank their top five choices, but their vote goes only to the film in the No. 1 spot unless the ballot is redistributed.
Incidentally, for the last two years, the Best Picture ballot had 10 lines on which voters were asked to list their favorites; this year it's back to five, a change of which many voters still seem to be unaware.
The old system, in which ballots were redistributed round after round until the top 10 vote-getters remained, has been replaced with a much more streamlined system in which only a single round of redistribution takes place, and in which the only ballots to be redistributed are the ones cast for the least popular films.
As a result, it becomes vitally important for films to have a large number of No. 1 votes to reach that five percent threshold, because the chance to recover from a slow start is extremely limited.
Yes, it's conceivable that 10 films could end up with the 250-or-so votes needed to land on the Best Picture slate. With nearly 6,000 voters eligible to cast ballots, that number shouldn’t be unreachable.
But given the way votes will be spread out among dozens of films, and the limited opportunity to make a move after the initial count, I suspect the number of nominees will be closer to five than to 10 most years.
The Academy, after all, revealed a crucial piece of information when it announced the change: PricewaterhouseCoopers went back and studied 10 years worth of voting, and concluded that if the new system had been in effect, it would have resulted in years of five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees.
But never a year of 10.
That's why I continually hear Oscar consultants sighing, "Well, if there are 10 nominees I think we'd be safe. But if it's only seven or eight … "
Even more than the old system, the new one will benefit love-'em-or-hate-'em films that have a small but passionate following: Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," for instance, might either be ranked very high on ballots or it won't be on them at all, and I think it could very well ride that passionate minority to a nomination.
On the other hand, more broad-appeal films that in the past would have picked up votes during the many rounds of redistribution won't get that chance, and could fall by the wayside.
The fun thing about this, of course, is that none of us really have any idea how it'll play out – that won't happen until the nominations are unveiled in late January.
Until then, I'm just saying: Until they fiddle with the rules again, I don't expect to see 10 nominees.