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Oscar Voting: How Does It Work, And Which 2012 Films Can Benefit?

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Awards season is in full swing thanks to the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but while the SAG Awards and Golden Globes are a nice appetizer, things don't really kick into high gear until Jan. 10, 2013: the day the Academy Award nominations are officially announced.

Most Oscar prognosticators assume films like "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables" will compete for Best Picture at the 85th annual Academy Awards, but how can they be so sure? Because of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominating process works.

After expanding the Best Picture nominee roster from five to 10 in 2009 -- the indirect result of an outpouring of criticism levied at the Academy after "The Dark Knight" failed to secure a Best Picture nomination earlier that year -- the AMPAS made another change last year: Anywhere from five to 10 films can be nominated for Best Picture, so long as they pass a certain voting threshold. From the AMPAS press release announcing the change in June of 2011:

After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that 5 percent of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from 5 to 10 movies.

“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” said Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis. “A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.”

How that works: The roughly 6,000 AMPAS members vote for Best Picture using a preferential ballot system. Each Oscar voter ranks his or her favorite films of the year from one to maximum of 10 (but no fewer than five). The films that receive more than 10 percent of the first-place votes are immediately pushed through as Oscar nominees; the films that receive less than 1 percent of first-place votes are tossed aside. Those ballots remain, however, and the second film listed on them now earns a first-place vote. If a film receives 5 percent of the first-place votes (roughly 300 or less), it becomes a nominee. However many films hit that threshold correlates to how many Best Picture nominees there are in a given year. At the 84th annual Academy Awards, there were nine films nominated for Best Picture.

Why did the AMPAS decide to make its nominations process so complicated? To create competition and reward passionate fan bases. As noted by Vulture, "[m]ovies with small-but-devoted followings," like 2011's "The Tree of Life," can become Oscar nominees as long as 300 or so Academy members felt it was the best film of the year. Looking at 2012's potential nominees, films like "The Master" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" stand the best chance of benefiting from the 5-percent rule.

Winning Best Picture, though, is another matter altogether. Once the nominations are set in January, the AMPAS will turn its attention to voting for which film will earn the title of Best Picture at the 85th annual Academy Awards. As with the nominations, the AMPAS asks its members to rank the selected films in order, with their favorite at No. 1. To win Best Picture, however, a nominee must have more than 50 percent of the AMPAS membership on its side.

Once the ballots are collected, PricewaterhouseCoopers tabulates the votes: The movie with the fewest first-place votes gets eliminated immediately, and -- as with the nominations -- those ballots remain in play for the film's listed second. Eliminating the film with the fewest first-place votes continues until there is one film left standing.

As a result, a movie universally liked stands a better chance at winning the Academy Award for Best Picture than one that has both passionate believers and detractors. That's good news for "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty," three films that seem most likely to win Best Picture when the Oscars are handed out on Feb. 24, 2013.

For more on the rules and regulations for Oscar voting, head over to Oscars.org.

The Academy Awards voting period begins on Dec. 17. All ballots are due by Jan. 3, 2013.

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