Behind The Academy Awards
By Elizabeth Epp
February 24, 2012
One only needs to be a casual observer of popular culture to recognize the much-hyped “Awards Season” that is January and February. It seems that in these months, Hollywood is giving high fives, standing ovations and acceptance speeches left, right and center. All of this congratulating culminates with the crown jewel of all award shows: the Academy Awards, viewed by millions around the globe.
Many posit these awards are becoming more and more disconnected with the television audience that views them. Whether it’s the smaller character-driven films or the bigger blockbuster movies taking home the awards, there will always be skepticism about the intent of the awards and the integrity of its choices. However, it’s important to remember the path to voting and participating in the Oscars is one tread by regular people who have attained excellence in their field—and want to recognize that excellence in others.
To even be able to vote on which film receives an Oscar is an accomplishment in itself—and the journey of any individual that votes for the Academy Awards starts with excellence in their own craft. Theoretically, this is a prerequisite for acceptance into the Academy. While each branch of the Academy has its own more specific prerequisites for acceptance, what they all aim to have in common is exclusivity of membership.
Take, for example, the acting division, which is the largest of the divisions. In order to become a member of this division, a person must have played a lead actor in at least three films that had a major release, as well as garnered three letters of recommendation from current Academy members.
Of course, as anyone in the entertainment industry knows, success doesn’t always breed success. It is not unusual to have Academy members who have risen to this high standing at one point in their careers, and then have never worked in something major again. Many may experience the strange duality of being both members of one of the most prestigious clubs in the world, but also finding average employment, perhaps as a local acting teacher.
Jennifer Warren, a 1989 Academy Award winner, explains that “everyone takes [voting] very seriously” because to win an award or to give someone else an award, recognizes them for a job well done, something that is positive in an area of the world where positivity is rare. So after a person is accepted into the Academy, they are expected to genuinely endeavor to highlight the hard work and creativity of their peers by participating honestly in the voting process.
The very first step in Oscar prep for Academy members every year is nominating films. This begins with a simple envelope sent to Academy members in each division. Members are able to nominate five films in their division. Cinematographers nominate films for cinematography, directors for directors, and so forth. The only exception to this is for best film, which is something everyone can nominate for. Voters then send back their little envelope with their five nominations to the Academy, who tallies all of the responses. From there, the nomination list is born.
After the films have been nominated, everyone is welcome to vote irrespective of division. This brings an Academy member to their next step in the process—seeing all the nominated films. When it comes to viewing films, voters have several options at their disposal. Some categories have stringent viewing policies. Take what one Academy member said of the arduous process of voting for foreign films and documentaries: “There are close to 60 foreign films submitted to be nominated from 60 or so countries. To facilitate viewing, they divide the Academy members who volunteer for the committee into five different screening days. Based on the day you pick, you have to see at least 14 films of all those in your category in order to be able to vote for Best Foreign Film. If you sign on for either the Foreign Film committee or the Documentary committee, you are saying that for two months, one night a week, you are committed to viewing two films right after each other from 7 to 11:30 at night.”
Other general categories allow voters to view films on their own time, encouraging them to take advantage of provided movie tickets to see the film in theaters or to attend one of the many private screenings hosted by production companies and studios in the months leading up to the Awards. Members are also sent copies of the nominated films, referred to as “screeners,” which allow them to watch the film at home—but are to be destroyed after use. Because the community generally takes the awards quite seriously, it is certainly expected that members watch all the films that are nominated in a category before they cast their vote. However, there is no test to ensure they indeed have, making the integrity of the awards highly positioned on an honor code.
After members have seen the films, they submit their votes. The rest of the process is fairly straightforward, culminating with the big show at the end of February, which the rest of America will be gathering to watch (and debate over) this weekend. All members have the opportunity to attend the Academy Awards, though certainly not every member elects to do so each year.
Behind every nomination or award is a group of people doing their best to be positive in a very competitive and discouraging industry. So as you form your opinions on the choices of the Academy at this year's awards, take a minute to remember the broader journey of the people fulfilling their responsibility to recognize their peers—It might not be the best consolation when your favorite film goes unrecognized, but doing so may change your outlook on what the awards mean.