Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oscar Race: More on the Weinsteins, LA Times and dirty campaigning

It seems the smear campaigning that continues in the L.A. Times (first against Up in the Air and now The Hurt Locker) has since spread to the other news outlets. While the L.A. Times focus was the Nicholas Chartier email scandal, Newsweek and Associated Press put out articles by war experts who dislike The Hurt Locker because it's supposedly disrespectful and inaccurate. Then the L.A. Times picked up on it themselves with a front-page story 'The Hurt Locker' sets off conflict, followed by others such as 'The Hurt Locker' debate: accuracy vs. entertainment. I can't help but notice that none of them spoke to the "accuracy" of the Weinsteins' Inglourious Basterds.

This reminds me of Norm Jewison who spoke recently about how The Hurricane was a strong contender in the Oscar race until a New York Times article smeared the film. Suspciously-timed articles have a habit of appearing during Academy's voting period that cast negative light on Oscar frontrunners, such as the accusations of anti-Semitism against A Beautiful Mind, the release of grand jury testimony from Polanski's 1977 sexual assault case when The Pianist was up against Gangs of New York, and accusations of exploitation against Slumdog Millionaire. Curiously, none of these articles ever seems to critique a Weinstein movie. Hmmmm.

The L.A. Times has become a de facto cheerleader for the Weinsteins' Inglourious Basterds, with Patrick Goldstein providing the voice of reason. Certainly none of these smears have come from the Avatar camp. James Cameron maintains an excellent relationship with his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and made it a condition of promoting Avatar that it would not be at the expense of The Hurt Locker.

The Hurt Locker team didn’t help their own cause when Chartier went rogue and sent out emails that dissed Avatar. L.A. Times' Peter Hammond first broke the story and has repeatedly followed up on it including info on other emails. He claims that Chartier’s detailed explanation of how members should vote belies his claim of naïveté. He either hasn’t noticed or willfully ignores the fact that Chartier’s explanation is completely wrong and wouldn’t help The Hurt Locker in the slightest.

He wasn’t the only one who doesn’t get it. The Toronto Star's Peter Howell decried an Academy member’s attempt to “fix” the results, but again neither he nor the member in question noticed that the course of action would have no positive effect for that member’s preferred film, The Hurt Locker. It still amazes me how few people understand the concept of a preferential ballot which the Academy is using for the first time in its Best Picture race. Both Academy voters and critics seem clueless.

In the case of the Academy members though, there’s no excuse. They should be familiar with it already since that’s always how their nomination ballots work. Technically, they do not make 5 choices in each category. They get five chances to nominate one choice. If their choice gets enough votes (20%) then it’s a nominee and their ballot is put aside since it was already counted. If the top choice doesn’t make it, then they go to a run-off and eliminate the choice with the lowest number of votes one at a time. They use the next choices of the eliminated ballots and see who gets enough votes to become a nominee, and keep repeating this process until they have 5 choices. The procedure is similar for the Best Picture ballot this time, the difference being that there is only one final selection rather than five, thus the run-offs will keep happening until one film reaches a majority (over 50%).

It’s important to realize that only one choice count on each ballot. The strategies described by Howell or  recommended by Chartier would never work because secondary choices only come into play when the first choice is eliminated. So if The Hurt Locker is your first choice and it’s been eliminated, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done with the rest of the ballot as far as your first choice is concerned.

Those other strategies would only have worked if they used a different system, e.g. counting every vote on the ballot and assigning it a value, say 10 for one’s top pick and 1 for the least favourite. In that case, the low ranking of Avatar (Chartier’s scheme) or not ranking the others at all (Howell) would benefit The Hurt Locker by denying Avatar points needed to surpass it.

But as I’ve said previously, the run-off process is like a political leadership race. Delegates don’t support multiple candidates but vote for one at a time, only turning to their order of preference if their main pick is eliminated. But refusing to have alternatives, or saying that a major rival is your bottom choice cannot possibly help your main choice.

I’ll be demonstrating this procedure with the results of your rankings of the nominees. If you haven’t already, leave your own personal ranking of the 10 Best Picture nominees before the March 2 (5pm P.S.T.) deadline. I’ll tally the results using the Academy's process and use them to compare with the Academy’s own results.

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