Ok, what’s your second favorite movie?
| Gabriel |
A few journalists have asked me about the recent changes to the “best picture” category at the Oscars. I’m reproducing my answer here. Also see my previous post on the increasing performativity of Oscar bait. Finally, the official version of the article on centrality and spillovers is finally out.
The Academy’s recent changes to the “best picture” category were a reaction to the increasing dominance of the category by obscure films. This has increasingly been an issue since the surprise win of “Shakespeare in Love” at the 1999 Oscars. This film was much less popular that “Saving Private Ryan” but took the Oscar in part because of an aggressive lobbying campaign from Miramax. Ever since, the Oscars have been increasingly dominated by obscure art films rather than big tentpole films for the simple reason that the small films benefit much more from Oscar attention than do the big films. Simply put, “Avatar” won’t sell any more tickets or DVDs if it wins or doesn’t win an Oscar, whereas Oscars could make a huge difference to the box office and DVD for films like “Precious” or “The Hurt Locker.” We saw this again last year in that “Slumdog Millionaire” made most of its money after the Oscars.
This dynamic has created a niche for “Oscar bait” films, which are released in November or December and often feature unpleasant (or if you prefer, challenging) material. The best example of this in the current slate is “Precious,” which is not exactly a “fun” movie. The downside for the Academy is that because audiences aren’t very interested in these movies, it depresses attention for the Oscars. Probably the breaking incident was that last year none of the nominated films had made over $40 million domestic in calendar year 2008, but “Dark Knight” (which made over $530 million domestic in calendar year 2008) was not nominated. This despite the fact that “Dark Knight” was not just a popcorn movie but artistically defensible, having been well-received by critics who saw in it a lot of interesting themes about morality and moral culpability. In large part because “Dark Knight” was not nominated, the Oscars had poor ratings, lower than many episodes of the game show “American Idol.” The hope was that by expanding the nominee list and changing the voting system, the Academy could ensure that at least a few hits would be nominated and would be likely to win, thereby halting the evolution of the Oscars into a ghetto for obscure art films.
Of course the downside to expanding the nomination list is that it makes it plausible that a few broadly popular films could split the vote and a film with a cohesive minority of supporters could attain a plurality, despite broad distaste. Similar issues are seen every once in awhile in politics when two mainstream political parties split the vote and seats go to an extremist party. To avoid such a possibility, the Academy has adopted an “instant runoff” voting system wherein voters do not just choose their favorite, but rank all of their choices. The tally then considers second and third choices until a film achieves a majority. The effect of the voting system should work as intended, which is to say it should ensure a consensus pick that most voters are reasonably happy with rather than a divisive pick with a few fervent fans but which is otherwise despised. The instant runoff system is less likely to produce a dark horse win than the old simple plurality system, but it’s worth noting that according to the “Arrow impossibility theorem” no voting system can reflect voter preferences with perfect accuracy.
In theory, one potential problem with instant runoff is strategic voting. With strategic voting, somebody might write a false second choice if they are afraid that their true second choice is likely to beat out their actual favorite. So if my favorite movie is “Hurt Locker” and my second favorite is “Avatar,” I might falsely claim that my second favorite is “District 9” because I see it as a longshot and I’m thereby assuring that I won’t contribute to “Avatar” beating “Hurt Locker.” In reality, I think this is unlikely to happen to any great extent because strategic voting requires a lot of coordination and the Academy is very strict about policing negative campaigning. In fact, they just censured a producer of “Hurt Locker” for implying that voters should vote against “Avatar.”