Is Oscar voting tilted against Avatar?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has adopted a new voting system for the 2010 race, and an article in this week’s New Yorker argues that it’s likely to harm Avatar’s chances. (Hat tip: Kare Anderson)

Instead of a simple ballot system where the movie with the most votes wins, the Academy is using a what is known as an instant-runoff system. It works like this: Voters rank the ten nominees in order of preference from 1 to 10. If no movie gets a majority of first place votes (which isn’t likely to happen, especially in early rounds), the last-place movie is dropped and the second choices on each of its ballots are redistributed to the other nine movies. This process continues until one movie finally has a majority of first choices.

All balloting systems have their disadvantages, but one of the major knocks on this system is that it can fail to pick the movie that is preferred by the most people in head-to-head match-ups with all the other movies out there. Here’s the argument for why this hurts Avatar and helps The Hurt Locker.

(Instant runoff) favors consensus. Now here’s why it may also favor “The Hurt Locker.” A lot of people like “Avatar,” obviously, but a lot don’t—too cold, too formulaic, too computerized, too derivative. (Remember “Dances with Wolves”? “Jurassic Park”? Everything by Hayao Miyazaki?) “Avatar” is polarizing. So is James Cameron. He may have fattened the bank accounts of a sizable bloc of Academy members—some three thousand people drew “Avatar” paychecks—but that doesn’t mean that they all long to recrown him king of the world. (As he has admitted, his people skills aren’t the best.) These factors could push “Avatar” toward the bottom of many a ranked-choice ballot.

On the other hand, few people who have seen “The Hurt Locker”—a real Iraq War story, not a sci-fi allegory—actively dislike it, and many profoundly admire it. Its underlying ethos is that war is hell, but it does not demonize the soldiers it portrays, whose job is to defuse bombs, not drop them. Even Republicans (and there are a few in Hollywood) think it’s good. It will likely be the second or third preference of voters whose first choice is one of the other “small” films that have been nominated. And “The Hurt Locker” has special appeal with two important and overlapping constituencies. If it’s picked, its director, Kathryn Bigelow, will become the first woman to have directed a Best Picture winner. This would please women and men who like to see glass ceilings smashed, whether or not they were Hillary Clinton supporters. The other group is ex-wives, who are numerous in the movie colony. James Cameron has four. No. 3 is Kathryn Bigelow. She and her ex-husband are said to get along fine. Still, there’s such a thing as identity politics—something to keep in mind when you’re filling out your entry for the office pool.

A lot of things can happen when you let 850 plus people rank 10 movies. But there are some other issues to take into consideration here. In the world of politics, instant runoff voting is often harmful to what you might think of as acceptable parties — ie. parties that are the second choices of most voters. In politics, this usually means centrist parties that would get the second place votes of the left or right party supporters, but get knocked out of the voting because they don’t have enough strong first-choice support.

One piece of missing information in the New Yorker article is the strength of third parties. Call them third movies here. When all third movies are weak, the instant runoff system typically collapses into a standard two-major-movie system. Based on the intrade odds, it doesn’t look like there are any strong third movies this year. The Hurt Locker and Avatar are the two big dogs.

If Avatar is a truly polarizing movie, which drops its average ranking (its average placement 1-10 on all ballots), then it is more likely it is to eventually lose. But The Hurt Locker can only be advantaged if it too has a strong group of committed supporters who will put it at the top of their ballots. A polarizing movie isn’t necessarily an award breaker. It can’t be stressed enough that prediction markets are not polls. It’s not clear whether the betting odds reflect strong support for them film, or just what people think will happen. Remember, Chicago was a strong bet to win the 2016 Summer Olympic games right up to the week of the selection. When it came to the actual vote, Chicago went out in the first round because it didn’t have a big enough block of first ballot support.

In instant-runoff voting, a strong third movie can play kingmaker. The strongest third movie right now appears to be Inglourious Basterds, which is currently getting 5 cent bids to win $1. That’s not very strong, but if the gap between The Hurt Locker and Avatar is only a few percentage points, the preferences of its supporters could overcome this small gap. So then, if there’s any good indicator of Avatar’s fate, it may just be the “frequently bought together” listings on Amazon. Right now, those purchases aren’t looking so good for James Cameron.

Addendum: Political scientist Herry Farrell says the instant-runoff system can be very entertaining depending on the order in which movies are knocked out, and thinks that with a little tweaking could make for good television itself.

3 Responses to “Is Oscar voting tilted against Avatar?”

  1. Dale Sheldon-Hess Says:

    You’ve got it a little off. Being a “polarizing” option isn’t a disadvantage in IRV.

    Which by the way is why every nation that uses IRV is, just like America, dominated by a two-party system: the voting system encourages two-party polarization.

    Personally, I think IMDB does a better job at picking best picture. They use a method similar to score voting (also known as range voting). I’ve written more about this on my voting-methods blog:

  2. adora Says:

    You’d end up with the movie that is “least disliked” rather than loved, isn’t it?

    • Dale Sheldon-Hess Says:

      That’s a bit of an oversimplification. You’d end up with the movie that the most people find to be the most good. Whereas with IRV, you might end up with a movie that a good chunk of people are obsessively over-fond of that everyone else despises with an undying fury. Those could be the same, depending on the nominees; but they won’t always be.

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