- Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Was it Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” the folk rock bio pic “Inside Llewyn Davis,” or Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”?

We’ll never know which film might have been the 10th best picture nominee at this year’s Oscars.

Ahead of Hollywood’s biggest night on Sunday, moviegoers may wonder why there have been only nine nominees for best picture the last three years - even though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ rules allow for up to 10.

It’s all part of a magic, complicated formula intended to choose the year’s best films, introduce an element of surprise, and minimize voters’ incentive to vote strategically, according to Rick Rosas, a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner who supervises the count.

It allows for fewer nominees in years when support is weak for certain films. Movies that make the cut need a hard-core group of supporters as well as broad acceptance by voters who would rank it their second- or third-best choice of the year.

“We want voters to be able to fully vote their conscience,” Rosas says, “not to worry, ‘My vote won’t matter for a particular film.’”

Here’s how the best-picture nomination process works. But we must also issue a spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you would rather not spoil the fun of the Oscars by trying to figure out one of the most complicated formulas devised by man.

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Still with us? Good luck.

The Academy’s 6,000 members are sent ballots and asked to rank their five favorite films of the year.

Let’s say “Voter Jane” really loved “12 Years a Slave” but also thought “American Hustle,” ”Philomena,” ”Gravity,” and “Nebraska” deserved runner-up status. She’d mark her ballot ranking “12 Years” as No. 1, “American Hustle” No. 2 and so on.

Here’s where the ballot counters come in.

All the films are ranked according to how many first-place votes they received.

Any that get over 9.1 percent of the first-place votes are automatically nominated. That ensures that no more than 10 nominees automatically make the cut. If 10 make it, then the counting is done.

If there are fewer than 10, the ballot counters look for so-called surplus votes. Any film that receives votes at least 10 percent above the 9.1-percent automatic nomination threshold will have the surplus votes re-allocated according to the voter’s second choice - or third choice if the second choice is already nominated.

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