Final voting for the 86th Annual Academy Awards has now officially opened as of 8 AM PT today. Consider it the Academy’soscar__130923143016__131213223904 Valentine’s Day gift to members: the chance to determine Oscar winners in all 24 categories, open to ALL voters for the first time. Despite the Academy’s press release noting voting begins today — both online or, if requested, by paper ballot — some members have told me they were surprised to receive their paper ballot in the mail as early as Monday of this week. So actually voting may already be finished for some early birds who requested, got, and maybe mailed their ballots in already. It’s significant since studios are running some very expensive Phase 2 campaigns timed to peak with the beginning of voting.

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Oscar envelope 2 - Copy - Copy - CopyMy guess is most ballots will be coming in closer to the announced final deadline of February 25 at 5 PM PT. That’s because, as previously noted on Deadline , the Academy sent a 13-disc package to all members last week containing all nominees in the Foreign Language Film, Documentary Feature and Live Action, Animated and Documentary shorts categories. That’s a lot to get through even if you’ve already seen the major contenders in the tightest Best Picture race in years, as well as other categories. Also, the Academy is strongly encouraging members to vote online, which gives a voter more time to cast a ballot. The process, which was troubled in its first year, has been widely praised by members this time around. They made it a lot easier — plus it saves you a stamp.

Also of note Academy members, Best Picture will be decided by a preferential counting system, while the rest is a straight up-and-down vote. That means your No. 2 choice could be even more important than your No. 1 pick in a race that promises to be closely contested and likely to be so split that no winner will emerge right away.  The PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants are looking for consensus, not necessarily the film that gets more No. 1 votes than any other.  In other words, 12 Years A Slave might be the first choice of more voters than say, Gravity or American Hustlebut if it doesn’t reach 50% plus one on the first round of counting and Gravity far outdistances Slave as the No. 2 choice on the remaining ballots, watch out. Passion votes count for only so much. That’s why in a year like this with no obvious winner, the pulses will likely be pounding even more than usual before that final envelope is opened March 2nd.