Oscar Analysis: How ‘Avatar’ Could Lose Best Pic

With six weeks until the Oscar show, the prohibitive favorite could stumble, and the move to 10 nominations could work

The move to 10 best picture nominees just might work.

And “Avatar” just might lose.

With a week to go before Oscar nominations and six weeks to go before the Oscar show, with the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards and SAG and the Producers Guild behind us, it’s time to take stock in the Academy Awards race, to look at what we’ve learned and how it’ll affect things in eight days, and in a month and a half.

And I’m starting to wonder about a couple of things. Yes, “Avatar” is the best-picture frontrunner. But I can easily see a scenario in which it will lose the Best Picture Oscar, probably to “The Hurt Locker,” just as it did Sunday night at the Producers Guild Awards.

Yes, the move to double the best picture nominees has been widely derided, and 2009 has been mocked as entirely the wrong year to try the experiment. But I think it might do exactly what the Academy wanted it to do: provide a more varied, more commercial successful group of nominees, and boost the ratings of the Oscar show.

1. The Ten

AvatarIf you look at the Producers Guild, which handed out its awards Sunday night, the 10 best picture nominees ran a real gamut: “Avatar” and “Star Trek” and “District 9,” “An Education” and “The Hurt Locker” and “Precious,” “Up” and “Inglourious Basterds,” “Up in the Air” and “Invictus.” Sci-fi, blockbusters, animated film, little indies, critical favorites and the biggest boxoffice movie in a decade.

While it doesn’t include a documentary or a foreign film, this is the kind of variety the academy was looking for when it moved to 10 nominees. The big fear – that doubling the number of nominees would lead to double the number of small, angry indie movies – will certainly not be realized.

And it’ll definitely lead to increased ratings – although the catch is that is you look at years like 1998 (“Titanic”) and 2004 (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”), one blockbuster best-pic competitor is all it takes to bump up the ratings. Which means that all by itself, “Avatar” would likely have led to the same kind of ratings increase.

Aye, there’s the rub: if the move to 10 results in a livelier race and a boost in ratings, it’ll have far less to do with what the Academy did than with what James Cameron did.

2. The Nominations

As for what Cameron will be competing with on Oscar night, the top half of the picture is clear. All signs say that “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Up in the Air,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Precious” are locks for nomination.

Beyond those five, you need to think about how the Oscar nominating ballot, with its 10 blank lines for ranked choices, works. When I used the preferential tallying system to count a batch of critics ballots last week, two-thirds of the “voters” wound up casting their crucial votes for their number one selection; votes in the other slots occasionally counted (in fact, movies listed in the number six, seven, eight and nine spots came into play about 10 percent of the time), but the key to winning a nomination is to have a passionate group of fans who’ll put you in the number one spot on their ballots, augmented by support all down other ballots.

The movies that did better than expected – and far better than they would have if the ballots had been tallied using the typical weighted system – were polarizing films like “Antichrist” and “35 Shots of Rum,” which didn’t appear on a lot of ballots but tended to be highly-ranked on the ballots on which they did appear.

So, of the contenders for those final five slots, which films will have the passionate support necessary to land a nomination?

“An Education”: I think so, because it’s well-liked. But have enough voters seen it?

“Up”: It should be a no-brainer, and I think it’ll get in … but that Best Animated Feature category is an awfully tempting escape hatch for voters on the bubble.

“Invictus”: The old guard will probably get it in, but the fact that it’s not very good – and that the Academy hasn’t rolled over for Clint Eastwood lately – could actually come into play.

“District 9” and “Star Trek”: One of them should get in, probably the former. But unless they appeal to distinctly different constituencies, which I doubt, I don’t see both of them having enough passionate support to land separate nominations. (If you put “D9” first on your ballot and “Trek” second, your vote will likely go to the first movie, and not help the second.)

A Serious Man“A Serious Man”: I’m surprised by how little traction it’s gotten in the awards race, but it has one real plus on its side: the people who like it tend to be passionate about it. I’m guessing it gets in.

“Nine”: If you like things like this – i.e., lavish musicals – there’s nothing else to vote for. But I don’t think enough people who like things like this will really be ready to throw their support behind a sub-par example of the genre. Still, stranger things have happened.

“The Messenger”: I don’t know if it’ll have enough number one votes, but I am sensing enough passionate adherents to make it a real contender.

"Crazy Heart": There’s enormous affection for the film.  Is affection enough to translate into high rankings?  It’s possible.

“The Blind Side”: I just don’t see enough passion for the film. But maybe I don’t want to see it. And voters of all stripes do seem to love Sandra Bullock.

“The Last Station”: It certainly has admiration and respect and maybe even love, especially from older voters. But is the passion there? I doubt it.

“The Hangover”: Will members of the Academy really look at a ballot with the AMPAS logo on it, and put this at number one? Really?

“Julie & Julia,” “It’s Complicated”: Movies to enjoy, if you’re so inclined. Not movies to get passionate about.

“The Road”: Harvey Weinstein thinks so. I bet it’s highly-ranked on a bunch of ballots … just not a big enough bunch. And I’d guess the same thing will happen to “A Single Man” and “In the Loop,” unless the actors branch rallies behind the former or the writers branch behind the latter.

“This Is It”: No it isn’t.

“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”: Yeah, right. To tell you the truth, I think this actually will be the number one choice for a couple dozen voters … just not enough of them to keep it alive through many subsequent rounds. Although it’d make for one hell of a moment during the nominations announcement – especially since the nominees are read alphabetically, meaning this would be the first nominee to be named.

I’m guessing that the second five will be “An Education,” “Up,” “District 9,” “Invictus,” and “A Serious Man” squeaking past “The Messenger” for the last slot. But it’d be nice to see some upstarts sneak in there and make things a little less predictable.

3. The Win

The Hurt LockerHere’s where my “Avatar” theory comes into play.

For the first time in about 65 years, the preferential system will be used to tally the final best-picture ballots. Voters won’t be asked to pick their favorite and check that box, the way they do in every other category. Instead, they’ll rank the 10 nominees in order of preference.

And when the preferential system is used to find a single winner, rather than a slate of nominees, it has a completely new effect.

In the nominations process, the preferential count rewards passion, because you just need a small group of voters – one-sixth of the total number of voters plus one in most categories, one-eleventh plus one for best-picture – to secure a nomination.

But in the final count, you need 50 percent of the votes, plus one. You need consensus, not passion. A polarizing film, even if it gets more first-place votes than any other, will have a hard time winning.

After I tallied the critics’ Top 10 lists to determine a slate of nominees, I went one step further and kept going to determine a winner. “The Hurt Locker,” which led from the first round, won easily, with 66 votes in the final round to 33 for “Up in the Air.”

But of those 66 ballots that cast votes for “The Hurt Locker,” only 26 of them had the film listed in the number-one spot. The rest were from elsewhere on the ballot – mostly the number two and three slots, plus a few from lower down.

If that holds true when PricewaterhouseCoopers tallies up the final Oscar ballots, it means that the winning film will get fewer than half its votes in the number-one spot. Which means the key to winning is not having more number-one votes than anybody else, but being in the top two or three on the ballots where you’re not listed as number one.

To reach 50 percent, the wining film is going to need to pick up hundreds, most likely thousands, of number-two and number-three votes.

And while I think “Avatar” will have no problem picking up lots of number-ones – if I had to guess, I’d say it’ll have a significant lead after the initial count – I think it might run into trouble with the number-two and number-three votes, in a way that top contenders like “The Hurt Locker” and “Up in the Air” and “Inglourious Basterds” won’t.

The key, I think, is to look at the other films that’ll likely be nominated, and ask this: If a voter’s favorite film is “An Education,” or “Up,” or “Invitcus,” or “Precious,” or “District 9,” which film is likelier to be next on their list – “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Up in the Air,” “Inglourious Basterds” or “Precious?”

Of those top contenders, it strikes me that “Avatar” is by far the most polarizing, and the most likely to be low-ranked by people who don’t put it at the top of their ballot. People who love it, love it – but it also has detractors, and those detractors have more than a month to rally their forces against the perceived juggernaut.

It might have more support than I realize; we’ll know on February 2, when a writing or, even less likely, an acting nomination would show that it’s been embraced by more than just the producers, executives and tech branches.

But for now, I have no trouble envisioning a scenario in which “Avatar” gets the most number one votes but fails to pick up those twos and threes, whereupon “The Hurt Locker” comes from behind and rides more broad-based support to victory.

Yes, it’s the leader. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s the winner. Not this year.

ADDENDUM: The discussion of the percentage of votes needed to secure a nomination was amended to clarify the difference between Best Picture and the other categories.