Behind the Oscars: History and How it Works

The Oscars image from the Walker Art Center

It’s that time of year again, as film critics and movie buffs await the most prestigious awards show in cinema, and debate with each other about who should win or who should have been nominated. The annual awards show has become a major tradition, with more than 43 million people watching the event on television last year! Now that movie reviews are a major aspect of Cat Flag, I felt that it was important to discuss this year’s Academy Awards. However, just going over who was nominated, who was snubbed, and who should win would be (1) boring and (2) just one of millions of similar articles and blog posts all over the internet doing the same thing. I decided it would be better to instead ask some questions about the Oscars that you tend not to hear so much. How did this tradition get started? Why is the award called “The Oscars”? How are movies nominated, and who decides the winners?

The Oscars are awarded every year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (they’re the “Academy” in “Academy Awards”). In spite of its name, the Academy is not a school about movies. Instead, it is a club for people who either currently work in Hollywood or who used to work in Hollywood but have since retired. The Academy’s membership includes actors and actresses like Tom Hanks, Jet Li, Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Julia Roberts, as well as directors like Steven Spielberg and Tyler Perry. It also includes many of the ordinary workers who make film-making possible: cinematographers, costume designers, editors, makeup artists, special effects workers, sound designers, and even musicians who make movie scores and soundtracks. Membership is for life, and many members no longer actively make movies. One member is now the owner of a bookstore, and one member is currently a Benedictine nun. Meanwhile, some of the biggest names in Hollywood are surprisingly not members – George Lucas and Woody Allen have both turned down offers to join.

There are currently about 6,000 members. Membership in the Academy isn’t something you apply for; you have to be invited, either by being nominated for an Oscar, or by getting an endorsement from current Academy members. Nevertheless, Erik Estrada, Cheech Marin, Paul Reubens (better known as “Pee-Wee Herman”) and Meat Loaf are all members.

Louis B Mayer and wife image from Wikipedia

The Academy was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer (the second “M” in MGM), pictured above with his wife. Mayer founded the club with other major Hollywood figures in 1927. The film industry in the mid-1920s was in something of a crisis. Famed actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was convicted of the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe. Charlie Chaplin was going through a nasty, headline-grabbing divorce. Not only that, but the American movie-going audience was in revolt against there being too much sex and violence depicted in Hollywood’s output. (I guess some things never change, huh?)

Not only was Hollywood facing a major public relations nightmare, it was also facing some major changes in the workforce, as many actors, actresses, and Hollywood workers were thinking hard about unionizing. Mayer believed that a prestigious award from an exclusive club of Hollywood insiders was a way to kill two birds with one stone. The awards would be a glamorous, sophisticated affair to showcase the good side of Hollywood for public consumption, and would show the people who worked in the industry that their contributions were appreciated.

The very first Academy Awards were held in 1929. It was a very different ceremony than what we are used to – a private dinner held at the Mayfair Hotel, with all the award winners already publicly known three months in advance, and the actual handing out of the awards taking only about 15 minutes.

It wasn’t until the second ceremony was held in 1930 that a live broadcast of the event was held on the radio. That was also the year that the Academy decided to keep the winners a secret initially, so that the awards ceremony would be more exciting. They gave a list of the winners to various newspapers on the condition that the list could not be published until 11:00 pm on the day of the event. This system worked well initially, but in 1940 the Los Angeles Times published the list early. To prevent that from happening again, the decision was made to hide the winners’ names in secret envelopes that wouldn’t be opened until the ceremony.

Oscar image from Wikipedia

So why are these awards called “The Oscars”? Well, it comes from the fact that the little gold statue winners receive is nicknamed “Oscar”. How it got that nickname, though, is a bit of a mystery. It is not named for the statuette’s designer (his name was George Stanley) or for the model who posed for the artist (that was Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez). One common theory is that one of the Academy’s directors thought it looked like her uncle, who was named Oscar. Another holds that actress Bette Davis gave it that named it after her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. In any case, the name was given early on, because we have a record of Walt Disney “thanking the Academy for his Oscar” in 1932, just four years after the awards were launched.

However he was named, Oscar’s main importance is as a status symbol awarded to Hollywood’s best. But how does the Academy decide who is “best”? The short answer is that they take a vote. The long answer is, well, long.

To be considered for an Oscar, you first have to get a nomination. The Academy is made up of several “branches” representing different aspects of filmmaking – a branch for actors and actresses, a branch for directors, one for visual effects workers, one for musicians, one for costume designers, and so on. The Academy members in each branch will then vote for who should be nominated for the Oscar given to their branch. In other words, directors will vote for Best Director nominees, sound engineers will vote for Best Sound Effects nominees, actors and actresses will vote for the Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress nominees, and so on. Some categories, like Best Foreign Film or Best Animated Feature, will be nominated by a special committee. All Academy members can vote for Best Picture.

Once the nominees are in, another vote is held, where all Academy members are allowed to vote in every category. All the votes are counted by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, who have been entrusted with this task since 1935. This year, the Academy offers an unofficial “fan ballot” you can use to share who you would vote for if you were a member.

It sounds simple, right? Well, this is where things get tricky. It turns out that winning an Oscar or even being nominated is really good for business, as people will check out winning and nominated films to see what the fuss is about. According to film historian Jonathan Kuntz, this is why the Oscars usually seem to ignore big-budget blockbusters no matter how good they are; those films have already made their money, while a lower-budget drama or art film might not be profitable without the attention an Oscar brings. Some movies have even taking to gaming the system, carefully orchestrating their release dates so that they just barely qualify for that years’ Oscars and are still in theaters once the nominees are announced.

Not only that, but Hollywood studios will sometimes spend millions of dollars lobbying for their movie to win the award. Special consultants, publicists, and marketing directors will call Academy members, offer special screenings, and push their movie on the all-important 6,000 or so Oscar voters. The Academy has even taken to adopting campaign finance reform rules to weed out the worst abuses.

Political considerations often go into these decisions. Many Oscars are awarded to people because it is “their turn” to win recognition for their careers, or because they are beautiful actresses and the voters are predominantly elderly white men. This last part is also frequently blamed for the reason Oscars tend to skew toward that demographic’s movie-watching tastes (the term movie buffs actually use for films appealing to this audience is “Oscar bait”).

As a result, there are many movies over the decades that did not win awards even though many critics and fans think they should have. Articles on these so-called “Oscar snubs” are a dime a dozen. Even the movie widely seen as the greatest ever made, Citizen Kane, lost to How Green Was My Valley for Best Picture in 1942, in large part because media mogul William Randolph Hearst lobbied to prevent Citizen Kane from winning. Not only that, but neither Alfred Hitchcock nor Stanley Kubrick ever won an Oscar.

Even so, the Academy Awards is still going strong 87 years later. This year’s event is to be held on February 22 and will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. It will air live on ABC at 7 p.m. Eastern Time (4 p.m. Pacific Time).

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One Response to Behind the Oscars: History and How it Works

  1. Pingback: Awesome People In History: Hedy Lamarr | Cat Flag

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