The Oscars are doubling their fun in this year's Best Picture race, with the expansion from five nominees to 10.
But that move -- designed to boost ratings by giving viewers a few nominated movies they've actually heard of -- isn't the change that could lead to a big surprise when the envelope is opened Sunday night.
The Academy Awards are entering the world of preferential balloting, where voters don't just check the one movie they want to win. Instead, voters must mark their favorites in order, 1 through 10.
When the folks at PriceWaterhouseCoopers get the ballots, they will separate them into 10 stacks, one for each nominee. Then they will take the smallest stack, cross out the No. 1 choice and redistribute those ballots based on their No. 2 choice. This continues until one stack reaches 50 percent plus one. (This, by the way, is the same system Utah Republicans use to select candidates at their state convention.)
"It's very possible that the movie with the most No. 1 votes may not get the award," said Tom O'Neil, the veteran Oscar observer who runs GoldDerby.com, the all-awards blog for The Los Angeles Times .
The consensus in Hollywood, O'Neil said, is that Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" is the favorite to win Best Picture -- and the potential spoiler is James Cameron's 3-D sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar."
"Both have strong followers and strong detractors," O'Neil said. With preferential balloting, he added, "a movie like 'Inglourious Balsterds,' that has the most No. 2 or No. 3 votes, could beat them." (O'Neil predicts an upset by Quentin Tarantino's World War II action flick.)
Expanding the Best Picture race to 10 films (echoing the Academy's norm in the '30s and early '40s) has given viewers some popcorn movies -- such as the box-office hits "Avatar," "The Blind Side" and "Up" -- alongside the less-popular prestige pictures, such as "The Hurt Locker," "A Serious Man," "An Education" and "Up in the Air." (The other three nominees are the sci-fi "District 9," Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Lee Daniels' harrowing "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire.")
"It certainly helped the campaign be more exciting," O'Neil said of the 10-nominee field, adding that it allowed the Academy to honor an animated film ("Up") and two science-fiction movies ("Avatar" and "District 9"), two genres that the Oscars often ignore.
"There's no comedy in the lineup, proving once again that Oscar has no sense of humor," O'Neil added.
But as for predicting a winner, expanding the slate shouldn't sway the savvy prognosticator.
"Real Oscar fans aren't fooled by the top 10," O'Neil said. "The five not nominated for director have no chance."
That means the real Best Picture race is down to "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious" and "Up in the Air."
There's still time to vote in The Salt Lake Tribune's 12th annual online Oscars poll. Visit http://extras.sltrib.com/oscars" Target="_BLANK">extras.sltrib.com/oscars to vote on who will win and who should win.
For help winning your Oscar party pool, read the Tribune's movie critic Sean P. Means' predictions in all the Oscar categories on his Movie Cricket blog, http://blogs.sltrib.com/movies" Target="_BLANK">blogs.sltrib.com/movies. Last year, Means predicted 20 out of 24 winners correctly.
Oscar Night, via Twitter
Follow along with the Tribune's Sean P. Means during the Oscar ceremony on Twitter -- at http://twitter.com/moviecricket" Target="_BLANK">@moviecricket -- starting Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Mountain time. The ceremony will air live on ABC, KTVX, Ch. 4 in Salt Lake City.