The Smart Money: Will Oscar's New Math Help or Hinder Moneyball?

Brad Pitt in Moneyball/Photo © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.
Brad Pitt in Moneyball/Photo © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

The closest the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences comes to the Florida recount's hanging chad is Hilary Swank's ex-husband, but nonetheless, its system of nominating and voting could politely be called Byzantine, growing more intricate with each passing year. When considering the Oscar chances for Stan Chervin, Aaron Sorkin, and Steven Zaillian's “Moneyball” script – culled from what many consider to be one of the great "unadaptables," namely, Michael Lewis' statistics-heavy book of the same title – it's important to remember that the Best Adapted Screenplay category “Moneyball” is competing in still went by the clunky name "Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published" until just a decade ago. But could the statistical quantum leap the Oscar ballot requires put Academy voters in the right state of mind to check the box for “Moneyball” or send a fifth-grade math shiver down their spines causing them to tick off one of the other options for Best Adapted Screenplay like “The Descendants,” “Hugo,” “The Ides of March,” or “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy”?

Sylvia Miles is an Academy veteran with her own statistical claim to fame: two best supporting nominations for well under fifteen minutes of screen time total. Her role in “Midnight Cowboy” clocks in at under four minutes while her second nomination was for just over eight minutes in “Farewell My Lovely.” Still, her Oscar stake hasn't given her a leg up when it comes to understanding the ballot. "I tell you the honest-to-God's truth," Miles admits. "It was confusing when I filled out the thing myself. They said members who are voting don't have to put down as many as you want and in the order that you want them. In other words, the tabulating has something to do with the order, but not necessarily your order. It works a different way, but how that works a different way, I don't know."

Paul Sheehan, the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times' award-centric website, begins by calling the voting process "pretty simple. For the winner, other than Best Picture, it's strictly who gets the most votes. About eighty percent of the Academy's 5,755 members vote, so that's less than 5,000. You tick off one name on the ballot and they just put them into piles and they count them up. Whoever's got the biggest pile wins." This simplicity quickly unravels, however, when Sheehan introduces the preferential ballot used to nominate screenplays by the 375 members of the writers branch chaired by former Academy president and “Dog Day Afternoon” screenwriter Frank Pierson. Before long, Sheehan is talking about magic numbers, first-place votes versus second-place votes, and a surplus rule. By the time he gets to Best Picture jumping from five to ten nominees – a change he attributes to the Best Picture snub of “The Dark Knight” – and the five percent threshold introduced for Best Picture this year, my head is spinning.

"It's the Iowa caucuses," Sheehan says, "but you have to meet everyone, shake hands, and have a compelling narrative." Unfortunately, he's not talking about the fictive arc here, but rather the behind-the-scenes drama that figures into a nomination, mentioning the “Tinker, Tailor” screenwriter who died just before filming began. "That makes a very compelling narrative," Sheehan continues of team “Tinker, Tailor.” "They were a couple. She died. John Logan wrote alone. ‘The Ides of March’ was a play, but then Clooney and Heslov come in and redo it, adding Clooney's character. Alexander Payne took an adaptation and threw a lot of it out, getting it back to the source material. And then the thing with Sorkin and Zaillian, Sorkin came in and reworked Zaillian, but they seem to be getting along okay unlike Jason Reitman and the original screenwriter of ‘Up in the Air.’"

Although Sheehan mentions a number of voting predictors – the Writers Guild Award for one – that seem to favor a “Descendants” win, this year's best adapted race is also fairly up in the air. "’Descendants’ is even money and ‘Moneyball’ is two to one, but you could very well win with a twenty percent plus one of the vote," he says. "If they split it five ways, there is the potential to win if you just get that one extra vote." Bigger picture, Sheehan ponders the radical differences in tabulating best picture versus all the other awards. "Every other race is about plurality," he says, "but best picture is the one that has more than fifty percent of the ballots in its pile. And that'll happen in rounds of voting and redistribution until you get to fifty percent plus one. It's beyond anyone's comprehension and probably designed by a guy with a pocket protector and glasses."