Despite the box office success of the sci-fier/thriller Inception, Christopher Nolan was snubbed once again in the Academy Awards’ Best Director category. Nolan had been bypassed before: in early 2009, The Dark Knight was nowhere to be found among the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. (This year, Nolan was nominated as the screenwriter and one of the producers of Inception.)
Now, one clarification: readers should be aware that whenever I mention an "Oscar snub," I’m merely referring to the fact that either a movie or an individual was left out of the Oscar roster. I don’t mean the movie or individual in question was actually "snubbed" by the Academy. That’s because the Academy Awards’ shortlists are the result of something called the "preferential voting system."
What this "preferential voting system" means is that the movies and performances frequently listed on the no. 1 and no. 2 spots — even if they’re not to be found on a majority of the ballots — will have a much better chance of landing a nomination than those listed on the no. 3 or no. 4 or no. 5 spots — even if they’re found on every single ballot.
In other words, Christopher Nolan surely received dozens of votes for his direction of Inception. In fact, Nolan’s name may have been found on every single ballot submitted by the 367 members of the Academy’s Directors Branch. (That is, if all 367 members — and not just, say, 150 or 200 of them — bothered to vote this year.)
But let’s say that Nolan’s name was mostly found at no. 3 and no. 4 on the Best Direction ballots, while The Fighter’s David O. Russell was no. 1 among a mere 16.6 percent (plus one)* of those ballots. Guess what? Russell, not Nolan, would be the one nominated even if the other 83.4 percent of the Directors Branch members didn’t list Russell on their ballots. (Addendum: Bear in mind that in the preferential voting system only one selection is counted per ballot.)
In the above scenario, Nolan would remain nominationless, but not because he was snubbed. His omission would merely be the result of the Academy’s preferential voting system.
That’s why I believe the preferential voting system (in effect since 1936) precludes the Academy Award nominations from truly reflecting the favorites of the Academy’s various branches. For if a relatively small minority within the Academy is totally crazy about one film or performance (no. 1 and no. 2 on the ballot), said film or performer has a much better chance of getting nominated than another that every Academy member likes "just" very much (no. 3 or no. 4 or no. 5 on the ballot — out of 250-300 or so eligible films per year).
The selection of the winner, I should add, is a whole different matter. In fact, I’d say that the winner in every Oscar category should be chosen via the preferential voting system. Why the about face?
Well, it’s not really an about face. Within a small pool of only five or ten nominees, something akin to the preferential voting system would ensure that the one top pick was the result of a consensus among Academy members — instead of possibly being the favorite of a mere 20 percent + 1 of voters. (When the Best Picture shortlist was expanded to ten titles last year, the Academy adopted the preferential voting system for the selection of the winner in that category. Else, a movie could theoretically win the Best Picture Oscar with a mere 10 percent + 1 of the vote.)
* 16.6 percent + 1 of the vote. What the hell does this mean? 16.6 percent is approximately 1/6 of the vote. If you have five open slots in a category, the minimum number of votes a movie or performer or song must get to be automatically shortlisted in the preferential voting system is 1/6 + 1 of the total number of votes.
Why 1/6 and not 1/5? Well, because 1/6 + 1 is the minimum necessary to prevent six films from being nominated. In other words, no more than five films can receive 1/6 + 1 of the vote. And that’s why the "+ 1" is needed, to prevent six nominees. Just simple math.
Photo: Inception (Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros.)