Although The Oscars are televised to millions of homes every year, one thing that isn’t well known is how the nominees are selected. But fear not, because we’re here to share that same information.
The annual event is right around the corner, and there are a lot of great choices on who’ll win. Filmgoers and insiders in the movie business have picked their hopeful winners. Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog might sweep most of the movie’s categories, but past Oscars events have had a few surprise wins. Another thing that might also be surprising is the history of this celebration of the art of cinema.
First, let’s take a quick trip down history lane. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science (AMPAS) began by the head of MGM Louis B. Mayer on January 11th, 1927, and his committee of thirty-six members. Still, it was not officially commissioned until May 4th, 1927. Part of this group’s initial talks and concerns involved labor-management arbitrations and negotiations but were later dropped, and the committees focused more on “Awards of Merit.”
Finally, on May 16th, 1929—after deliberating on categories and location setting—the 1st Academy Awards ceremony occurred at a private dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Yet, the annual event would not be televised until the 25th Academy Awards in 1953. Although twelve categories were presented at the first award ceremony, that number would double over its 94-year history.
The past twelve categories were outstanding production, most artistic or unique production, achievement by an actor and an actress, dramatic directing, comedy directing, cinematography, art directing, engineering effects, original story writing, adaptation writing, and title writing. Over time, the categories would change, and more would be added, totaling twenty-four altogether. These changes would cover almost every facet of the moviemaking experience.
This higher number of categories show a deeper appreciation for the art of filmmaking and has ballooned the AMPAS ceremony—commonly known as The Oscars—to a much longer tradition clocked in at three and a half hours. Choosing its members is a long and strenuous process for as long as it feels to sit and watch the whole ceremony.
Who and What?
As of 2022, the official total of eligible members to vote in the Oscar ceremony is 9,487. The overall current amount of Academy members is 10,487. However, 914 of those members are emeritus status and don’t vote, along with 86 active Associate members. In 2020 and after the 2015 “Oscar So White” controversy, the Academy decided that their lack of inclusion had become a severe issue and rectified that mistake by inviting 819 new members. The organization announced that the invitees were 49% international from 68 countries, 45% women, 36% underrepresented ethnic/racial, and continues to grow today.
These new members would join current members in their respected branches, seventeen in total, voting in their categories—e.g., directors nominate directors, actors nominating for the four acting categories. The seventeen chapters included actors, cinematographers, costume designers, directors, documentary, editors, makeup artists/hairstylists, music, producers, production design, short films/feature animation, sound, visual effects, and writers; three are not represented with awards. Those include casting directors, executives, and marketing/public relations. So, the next question would be, “How does one become a member?”
Becoming a member of the AMPAS is having the right connections in Hollywood. The official Academy Membership states, “The Academy’s membership process is by sponsorship, not application.” The statement continues, “Candidates must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission.” One thing to note is that Academy nominees are automatically considered and don’t need sponsorship.
The final decision on granting membership comes down to branch committees and recommendations given to the Academy’s Board of Governors. After that, the memberships are greenlit, and new members are brought on board. These applicants’ reviews happen once a year, and the voting status is limited to 10 years when membership can be renewed. In terms of the voting process in some categories, that gets a bit complicated.
The members of the Academy choose to vote on paper or online. These votes are put together and tallied by Price Waterhouse, now known as PwC. The AMPAS has been using the accounting firm since 1935 after Bette Davis was unjustly passed over during that year’s nominations. Three members of the PwC—with a few colleagues tally up the votes where the winner cards are printed, sealed in envelopes, and locked in a secure briefcase. These members of the PwC are the only ones allowed to know and memorize the final winners for the event. Even though 23 of the 24 categories are counted in this manner, the Best Picture nominations are treated differently.
Best Picture nominations have changed over time, but the standard now allows five to ten nominations. That area is handled more like an electoral college method of tallying votes. The members vote for their top choices in descending order and with a high percentage is chosen as the winner. They may not win in terms of hard numbers but in terms of consensus. Such secrecy and careful consideration ensure that little to no mistakes happen. The AMPAS wouldn’t want a repeat of the dramatic events during the 2017 Best Picture segment during the 89th Academy Awards.
Thought members of the general audience would consider the selections and winners based on who’s popular—that’s not the case. Otherwise, Keanu Reeves would win every year.
Los Angeles is inundated with “For Your Considerations” (FYC) billboards and ads during Oscar season at the end of every year. Advertising and promotion are part of the DNA of Hollywood. These ads by the studios that produce these Oscar-type movies bring attention to them from the general public and, most importantly, the Academy members. The logical reason for the studios to get their films noticed is to make sure the voters see their movie and take it under heavy consideration. There is no average amount in terms of money spent on these campaigns. Campaigns can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to an estimated $50 million. However, it never guarantees a win for the studio.
For years, there have been discussions that any studio can buy an Oscar, but there have been plenty of shocking wins over the ceremony’s history. It is important to note that winning an Oscar by these studios is a way to secure the next job for an actor, director, producer, and other winners in their categories. In addition, bringing notice to their wins allows boosting their salaries. Finally, a best-picture win can increase the license fee for TV, streaming, and any other format for many years to come.
Oscar analysts like to apply scientific principles to measure among the moviegoing audience and members of the Academy to predict the outcome. Still, the AMPAS keeps a tight lid on who will win every year’s Oscars. The award ceremony is a great way to help bring recognition to the arthouse for those who have yet to see the movies and check them out if audience members have already seen them. Not every year is guaranteed a historical event, but it reminds us of the glitz, glamour, and magic made when creative minds set out to make a film that pushes inspiration and drives an emotional feeling.