Every year, critics come up with their lists of the top ten films of the past 12 months. Ideally an eclectic mix of arthouse fare, Hollywood auteurs and the occasional wild card (say, last year’s appearance of Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder”), these decalogues of cinephilia tend to be capricious, political and painstakingly strategized for maximum effect, not to mention their impact on the final results of consensus-building critics’ polls.
Now think of that power in the hands of the more than 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as they choose this year’s ten Best Picture nominees, and watch the chaos unfold. The expansion from five to ten nominees isn’t the only major game-changer — there’s also the switch back to instant runoff voting, in which the films must be ranked in order of preference, to keep in mind. Imagine the wide expanse of options this year’s voters will encounter for the first time: Is “Up” ranked #2 or #3? “A Serious Man” a #6 or #7? And what crazy movie might be placed at #10? “Antichrist”? “The Hangover”?
It’s those 7s, 8s, 9s and 10s that could turn out to have a significant effect on the livelihood of low-budget films made completely outside of the Hollywood system, which in previous years have been acknowledged, somewhat condescendingly, as mere best original screenplay nominees, but ignored within the bigger categories (see “Frozen River,” “Happy Go Lucky”). This year, perhaps for the first time, a number of uber-indies have the chance to enter the vaunted ranks of Hollywood’s biggest promotional platform: Best Picture.
“Statistically, the race has changed,” says Iain Pardoe, an associate professor of statistics at the University of Oregon, who devised a statistical algorithm for predicting Oscar winners. “And with a lower threshold for winning, dark horses could win more often in the future.” (For a deeper look at the mathematical complexities of the new voting system, check out this post from a film blogger based in Ireland, one of the few countries which employs a similar preferential voting system. Mathematicians say no voting system is perfect, but the one that the Academy now employs — called Single Transferable Voting — is contentious because the diversity of first-place votes or even no votes can actually hurt a contender, while getting fewer votes can sometimes help.)
Still, it’s not like any movie can win on Oscar night. As Pardoe adds, “Since there are typically one or two frontrunners each year, this aspect is unlikely to change much, and so the best picture winner will continue to be fairly predictable.”
That won’t keep several unlikely contenders from trying to crack the top ten. Veteran Oscar campaigner Cynthia Swartz, for example, is working on award season pushes for a diverse group of films, including Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” Jean-Marc Vallée’s period film “The Young Victoria,” Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia,” Oren Moverman’s post-war drama “The Messenger” and two documentaries, “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Anvil! The True Story of Anvil.” “Obviously, you only have to reach fewer people with ten spots,” Swartz says. “In the past, you had to reach a fifth of the Academy; now you only have to reach a tenth.”
If the new rule change presumably happened to help mainstream studio films make the Best Picture cut — the oft-cited example being last year’s slight of “The Dark Knight,” while early talk this year is circling “District 9” and “Avatar” as big-budget possibilities — the shift may inevitably favor indies, because studios are making fewer and fewer of the sorts of prestige movies that are typically Oscar fodder, according to Swartz.
“Who’s vying for these  spots? Nobody is,” she says. “Look what’s going on in the film business. The studios aren’t in this business and the specialty players don’t really exist, so there’s so few films released in that middle range, specialty sector. I’m curious to see what happens next year,” she adds, “when there might not be any more ‘Nine’s.”