Everybody's confused about the new Best Picture process.
Nobody knows how it will play out, and whether we'll have five nominees, or 10, or some number in between.
But what if I could tell you what happens when the Oscar process is applied to ballots cast by a group of hundreds of voters who've historically been an accurate predictor of what Oscar voters will do?
I can, and here's the answer: There won't be 10 Oscar Best Picture nominees.
There will be eight.
And we got that number by counting the Critics' Choice Movie Awards ballots the same way the Motion Picture Academy tallies its votes.
The study began when I approached executives at the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which gives out the Critics' Choice Movie Awards -- and of which I am a member -- with a crazy suggestion:
After you announce your nominees, let me recount the ballots using the Oscar system, I asked.
The CCMAs, after all, are one of the most accurate bellwethers of the Oscars. Last year, 27 of the Academy's 30 Best Picture and acting nominees had already received CCMA noms; the year before, it was 24 out of 30.
Understandably, the Broadcast Film Critics didn't go for my plan to borrow their ballots, even after I promised not to reveal which films would have been left out. But they were intrigued by the idea, and they got in touch with the accountant who tallies those ballots at CMM, LLP.
The Broadcast Film Critics and CMM agreed to let me tutor the accounting firm's Debby Britton on the Oscar process, and then reveal the results after the counting was completed.
So I sent Britton a step-by-step description of the process that the Academy says will result in somewhere between five and 10 Oscar nominees.
And here's how it played out:
A large majority of the Broadcast Film Critics' more than 250 critics cast ballots, which asked them to rank their favorite movies, one through five. On those ballots, 33 different films received first-place votes.
Under the Oscar system, the race is immediately narrowed to those 33 films; every other movie is out of the running, no matter how many second- or third-place votes it received.
Once the initial count was made, the number of votes required to guarantee a nomination was determined. This is done by dividing the number of votes by 11, and then adding one (or if the result is not a whole number, adding whatever fraction is needed to make it one).
Example: If 250 members had voted, 23 votes would have guaranteed a nomination, because it would be impossible for more than 10 films to receive that many votes.
According to CMM, only one film received enough votes to secure a nomination in this way.
(I don't know which film this is, and neither do the BFCA officials who passed me the information. But it's easy to take an educated guess and figure that it's probably The Artist, since that film has won the lion's share of the critics' awards handed out so far this season.)
The next step in the Oscar process is to determine if any film got 20 percent more votes than it needed to secure that nomination. If so, it triggers the surplus rule, and its votes are redistributed, and the film ranked second on each ballot gets a percentage of that vote.
Another example: If a film gets twice as many votes as it needs, each of its ballots counts 50 percent for the first-place film and 50 percent for the voter's second choice.
The one film that qualified in the first round, according to CMM, did indeed trigger the surplus rule.
After its votes were redistributed, Britton then went back to the rest of the ballots. At this point, she looked for any movie that received less than 1 percent of the vote. That would be two votes if more than 200 voters cast ballots, one vote if fewer than 200 did so.
According to Britton, 10 of the 33 films fell below the 1 percent threshold. Those 10 then had their ballots redistributed, with the vote going to the film ranked second on the ballot, assuming that film was among the 22 movies still in the running. (If it wasn't, she would move down the ballot until she found a movie that was.)
When those ballots were redistributed, CMM then looked at what was left. At this point, under the Oscar system, any movie with more than 5 percent of the vote would became a nominee; any movie with less than that would not.
And when Britton did the final math, she came up with eight nominees.
Will the Oscars play out the same way? Will only one film qualify in the first round? Will a third of the films in play fall beneath the 1 percent threshold?
We still don't know -- but after this little experiment, we just might have a better idea.
Oscar nominations will be announced on January 24; the Critics' Choice Movie Awards will take place on January 12 at the Hollywood Palladium and will be broadcast on VH1.