Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in 'Boyhood'
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in ‘Boyhood’

I’m going out on a limb here, but I think that Alejandro González Iñárritu is going to win Best Director for Birdman — but that Boyhood will be named Best Picture. Oddly enough, not a single Academy member has to split their vote in order for this to happen.

Six times in the last 20 years, and for the last two years straight, the Oscar for Best Picture went to a film whose director was not named Best Director. Such divergence has always seemed like a head-scratcher, particularly in the old days before preferential voting in the Best Picture category. But it was often seen as a way to reward auteurs who might have seemed overdue for recognition (Roman Polanski won in 2002 for The Pianist, but first-time nominee Rob Marshall’s Chicago took Best Picture) while spreading the wealth in terms of the overall distribution of statuettes.

Michael Keaton and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on the set of 'Birdman'
Michael Keaton and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on the set of ‘Birdman’

González Iñárritu, fresh from his DGA Award, seems to have the upper hand over Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater for his technical achievement on Birdman, which was seemingly shot in one continuous take. It’s a degree-of-difficulty accomplishment that echoes that of Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, and Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan — all directors who won despite snubs for their films in the top prize. To win Best Director, González Iñárritu only needs to get more ballots than his four other nominees — he could theoretically win with just 21 percent of the vote.

That’s not the case with Best Picture, where a bit of game theory has figured into the equation since the Academy adopted a preferential system when it expanded the category to as many as 10 nominees in 2009. (The Academy wanted to insure that there was consensus support for the Best Picture winner to avoid, say, all the below-the-line people rallying around a tech-driven film like District 9, which may not have had widespread support throughout its membership.) Unlike every other Oscar winner, a Best Picture victor needs 50 percent of the votes plus one. As with the pre-nomination ballots, voters rank all the nominees by order of preference. The movie with the least number of votes is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed to that voter’s No. 2 pick, and the process repeats until one film claims half the votes. Unless there’s a really strong front-runner, you can probably assume that the accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers will have to eliminate all but two films to get a simple-majority winner — and that No. 2 may not even be the runner-up that everyone imagines.

Even if we assume that Boyhood and Birdman are the leading contenders for Best Picture, and likely to be whittled down to the final two, we have to decide which of them is the preference of people who pick other films as their first (or even second, or third) choice. I’m hearing that a lot of Academy members are stumped by Birdman; they just don’t get it. It’s too indie, it’s too New York, it’s too theatrical, its ending is too ambiguous. That suggests it’s going to rank low on a lot of ballots. That ambivalence reduces the chances that the film will emerge as a consensus choice; it may even scotch its chances of being in the final two. I’m guessing that Boyhood ranks higher on more ballots than Birdman — and that should put it over the top when the final envelope is opened at the Dolby Theatre next weekend.