What are the Academy Awards?
Every year, we celebrate the Oscars. But you may not know what that means, how it originated, and how those awards are chosen. So let’s dive in.
In 1927, the first meeting of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences happened, where some Hollywood heavy hitters met together to celebrate the best in their business. It was spearheaded by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM at the time. It began almost as a union of sorts, with discussions about pay and negotiations, but it quickly shifted towards celebrating each other, culminating with the first award ceremony in 1928. Contrary to what happens today, the winners were announced three months prior to the awards, so there wasn’t really a sense of surprise. For a few years, they would give the Press the winners so that they could be published and discussed on radio, until 1940 when the Los Angeles Times printed the winners prior to the ceremony. That prompted the now super-secret method of the sealed envelope.
Before we discuss the actual winners, let’s look at who gets to choose these winners. Who is considered a member of the Academy?
Membership into the Academy is very difficult to get. Either, you must win what they consider to be a “competitive” award, which is rather vague, or you can be sponsored by two individuals in the same field as you. There are 17 branches of the Academy and you can only be a member in one of the branches. So for example, two film editors can sponsor another film editor to be a potential member. A full exhaustive list of members is not public but they do often publicize new members to the Academy, so it’s not entirely secretive either.
Each branch of the Academy has three “governors” which help to coordinate and make decisions about their specific interests. Some governors you may know… For the Actors branch, Ed Begley Jr, Annette Bening, and Tom Hanks are the 2015-16 governors, while we’ve got directors like Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, and Edward Zwick.
In total, there are almost 6,000 voting members of the Academy. In terms of demographics, they are 94% white, 77% male, and 86% over the age of 50. 33% of the total membership are winners of awards themselves. This is from a 2012 survey from the LA Times, with a sample of 5,000 of the total Academy members.
Let’s talk about how a film is eligible for an award. The film must open between January 1st and December 31st of a given year, even in limited release, and be open for seven consecutive days. A film opening on December 29th would fail to meet the criteria but would meet the criteria for the following year, as soon as it hit seven consecutive days. It must also be feature-length, meaning more than 40 minutes, with the exception of certain short-length awards. The producers for a movie must then complete an official self-nomination form with the entire list of screen credits for their film. If the producers don’t submit this information on time, the film will not be eligible.
So now, a list of all eligible awards gets sent to the nearly 6,000 voting members. In this phase, members choose the nominees in their own field. For example, the Directors branch narrows down which Directors might be nominated. For the Best Picture category, all branches get to decide the nominees. In the second round of voting, once nominations are done, all branches can vote for all categories to decide the actual winners.
Who tallies these votes? How has there never been a leak?
The Academy outsources its voting to an accounting firm called PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Awards don’t actually happen until usually March, so there’s a few months that the voting gets to happen. PricewaterhouseCoopers gathers the votes but no single employee looks at the entirety of a pool. For example, one accountant might enter a fraction of each award, but never see the larger picture, so it’s difficult to make extrapolations. Each count is done seven times to make sure it’s absolutely accurate without error. They even print out congratulation cards for all the nominees, so that the printing technicians don’t know the winner. Two staff members destroy the losing cards and place the winning cards in the envelopes.
There are two complete sets of winning envelopes that are brought to the Awards in-person, with these two staff from PricewaterhouseCoopers each being accompanied by a full security detail. They’ve decided to never utilize technology to announce winners, such as a teleprompter, as this opens up the pool of people that might be able to leak this information. Prior to the announcement, only these two trusted staff at PricewaterhouseCoopers are the only two to know the full list of winners.
Even the physical awards don’t have engraved names on them, until after the awards ceremony. At the party following the ceremony, an inscription-specialist has prepared plates for all potential winners and can affix the proper name plates to the actual award, now that it’s public knowledge.
Why is the physical statue called an “Oscar”? Interestingly enough, there isn’t one definitive answer. It’s been called that since 1939 and the only tales of why it’s called that… are unverified. Some claim it’s because the statue resembled someone named Oscar, or in tribute to a lost loved one or esteemed colleague named Oscar. But really, no one knows for sure.
You also might be thinking how valuable these statues are, considering their rarity. Winners of awards now must sign an agreement, that before they sell their Academy Award to anyone, they must offer to sell it back to the Academy for $1. This means that they rarely are sold back. Prior to this agreement though, a few Oscars have been bought in auctions. The Best Screenplay award for Citizen Kane was sold for over $800,000.
Now, during these few months of voting, there is sometimes aggressive campaigning that happens, as producers try to get their movies into the hands of these 6,000 voting members. Most movies get sent to voters free of charge, as there isn’t a requirement to see all movies in a category before voting. By providing free copies, more voters might see, and therefore vote for, their film. While social media seems the easiest way to go, surprisingly print marketing is still more effective for this audience of voters, so producers often will buy “For Your Consideration” ads in the big Hollywood magazines. Most Best Picture campaigns run about $10 million total. This sort of campaigning sometimes doesn’t matter, such as Mo’nique’s Supporting Actress win in 2009’s Precious. She refused to do any press or campaigning for Precious yet still took home the Oscar.
So that’s a pretty superficial look into the Academy Awards. Hopefully this was interesting!