Why This Year’s Oscar Race Will Go Down to the Wire

In a confusing year, it takes a long time for a winner to emerge in our simulated Best Picture count

Michael Keaton in Birdman and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

A version of this story appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap magazine.

As one of the strangest and most confounding years in recent Academy Awards history enters its final week of voting, things should be feeling more settled. After all, “Birdman” has won the top award from the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild, along with the Screen Actors’ Guild’s ensemble honor. By all rights, it should be a easy pick to win the Best Picture Oscar on Feb. 22.

And it probably will be — except that almost nobody would be surprised by an upset. In the latest vote at GoldDerby.com, “Birdman” was picked to win by 13 of the 23 “experts.” But “Boyhood” was picked by nine, despite the fact that it didn’t win at PGA or DGA and could well lose WGA to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” on Saturday. (At Movie City News’ Gurus of Gold panel, meanwhile, “Boyhood” is still in the lead, with nine votes to four for “Birdman.”)

Meanwhile, one pundit picked “Selma.” And “American Sniper” keeps popping up as a potential surprise winner. And the Weinstein Company isn’t giving up on “The Imitation Game.”

Also read: What ‘Birdman’s’ Big Weekend Means for a Wild Oscar Race

All season long, we pundits have been uneasy. “Boyhood” won the critics’ awards? Then it must be the frontrunner. But “Birdman” won PGA? Then it’s the new top dog. And DGA, too? Game over. But wait, “Boyhood” won BAFTA, which has a six-year streak of predicting the Oscars, so it’s not over after all.

The bottom line: I don’t know what’s going to win. So in an attempt to gain a little insight into the process in this strange, strange year, I put out a stack of mock ballots at TheWrap’s Oscar party last week. I asked partygoers to fill them out as if they were casting real ballots — which is to say, to rank the eight Best Picture nominees from their favorite to their least favorite.

(That ranking, by the way, is very important. Only voting for one or two movies doesn’t help your favorites, but simply increases the chance that you’re wasting your vote.)

And after counting those ballots, I’m pretty sure of one thing only: When the folks at PricewaterhouseCoopers begin counting real Oscar ballots next Wednesday, they’re going to continue counting for a long time.

Also read: SAG Awards 2015: Surprises, Salutes and No-Shows

The way the Best Picture count works, ballots are separated into piles depending on the film ranked first on each ballot. The film with the fewest No. 1 votes is eliminated, and its votes are shifted to the film ranked second on each of its ballots. The process continues, with the last-place film being redistributed round after round, until one movie has more than 50 percent of the votes.

I was only dealing with about 40 ballots, a small sample and one that isn’t necessarily representative of the Academy at large. But it’s worth noting that my count went to the limit: No film reached the 50 percent level until only two movies were left standing.

And yes, those two were “Birdman,” which won, and “Boyhood,” which came in second. I didn’t know which one of them came out on top until I’d eliminated “American Sniper” (surprisingly, the first film to be knocked out), “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Whiplash” and “Selma,” in that order.

Also read: Oscars Final Word: What ‘Birdman,’ ‘Boyhood’ and ‘American Sniper’ Ads Are Saying

Worth noting: “Birdman” started with a big lead, which it never lost. The lead, though, narrowed as ballots were redistributed and “Boyhood,” “Selma” and “Whiplash” moved up.

Also notable: “Boyhood” was in the top three on 75 percent of the ballots, the best such showing. If that held true with a much larger group of voters — say, the 6,000-plus who cast Oscar ballots — the film just might forge the kind of consensus needed to win, even if it started from behind.

The key, though, is that this year’s race was close enough that it took a full six rounds, the maximum needed to find a winner in an eight-film field. (Theoretically you could go seven, but at one point “Theory of Everything” and “Imitation Game” tied for last and were eliminated in the same round, making a seventh round impossible in our simulation.)

I have little doubt that in the years in which, say, “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” won Best Picture, those films reached the 50-percent threshold within a few rounds. But this year feels different.

While I don’t pretend that our small group of voters are representative of the Academy or will have the same tastes, I do suspect that the real count will go the distance, too.

By the way, here’s a video I made last year explaining how the Best Picture count works.