Oscar Counts

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

Variety’s editor, Tim Gray, wrote a fascinating piece about Academy Award voting last week. He outlined the arcane – but ultimately thoughtful way – that votes are tallied in the major Oscar categories.

In a nut shell, the members of each branch choose five potential nominees in their own category and list them in order of preference. So actors vote for actors and sound people vote for sound people. And then all the 6,500 members of the Academy vote for best picture.

Then the academy counts ballots using what’s known as “preferential voting” rather than winner-takes-all. There’ll be a link to Tim’s piece on our website for those who wish to know the dirty details, but here I’ll only say that the system is designed to make sure that every voice is heard.

One interesting detail is that every voter could have included someone on their list of five, but if that person was not on the top of anyone’s list, they would not get a nomination. So, say, if you’re favorite actor didn’t get a nod then that could be the reason.

Ironically, most voting members of the academy haven’t taken the time to understand how their ballots are counted. But if they did, they’d be pleased to note that in many ways the way they are counted stresses merit and fairness over the academy’s self-interest.

Let me explain. According to the New York Times, the Oscar telecast will bring in some $40 million to the academy this year. And that number is predicated on...anyone? Ratings. And when big movies are nominated – big movies that a lot of people have seen here and abroad – more people watch the Oscar telecast, here and abroad. And lately, the blockbusters haven’t been getting the top awards.

In 2003, the third Lord of the Rings movie was nominated for best picture and won. But a blockbuster hasn’t even been nominated for best picture since then. Now broadcast TV ratings are dropping overall, but clearly this trend is making things worse for the Oscar telecast.

Last year was the most dramatic example of what I’m talking about. All five of the best picture nominees combined made less than $700 million worldwide, while the number-one movie alone – Spider Man 3 – made almost $900 million. But Spider Man 3 was not nominated for best picture or any of the acting categories. Not surprisingly, ratings for the telecast were at an all-time low. And it’s going to be worse this year. All the best picture nominees combined made a quarter of the billion dollars raked in by The Dark Knight – and it wasn’t nominated for best picture.

Of course, other kinds of drama can draw viewers.

There was buzz that pixar’s Wal-e might become the first animated feature ever to be so honored, with a best picture nod, and that certainly would have attracted some viewers. In the same way, Heath Ledger’s nomination for his role as the Joker in the Dark Knight will attract the curious.

After all, its not every day that a major Oscar is awarded posthumously. People are already speculating about who might collect the statue in his stead…the front runner is Michelle Williams and their daughter ,Matilda. Oh, what an emotional TV moment that would be.

But you can bet that if that moment does come to pass, it won’t be because the academy rigged it that way for ratings. You might argue that people will vote for Ledger for sentimental reasons or other no-artistic reasons. But Oscar voters are people, and when it comes to movies people will disagree. Hey, I know who used the word “genius” when talking about Beverly Hills Chihuahua!

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at kcrw.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman