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The Ultimate Prize: How Academy Members Choose Oscars Winners

Ke Huy Quan poses backstage with the Oscar® for Actor in a Supporting Role during the live ABC telecast of the 95th Oscars® at Dolby® Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 12, 2023.

One of the hardest judging jobs has got to be that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting members, the people who decide the Oscars.

By the numbers, there are 9,579 eligible voting members, nearly 14,000 feature films created during the eligible period, 301 of which qualify for nomination, and 17 branches voting on 23 categories. Whew! Those numbers can make one’s head spin.

Riz Ahmed and Allison Williams co-host the Oscars announcement of nominees for the 95th Annual Academy Awards, presented on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.
Riz Ahmed and Allison Williams co-host the announcement of nominees for the 95th Annual Academy Awards, presented on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.

Every year, though, the Oscars leaves a film or two or six out of the nominations and leagues of supporters cry out, “foul!” How does this happen? How does a film, loved by almost everyone who has seen it, not garner a not from the Academy? Let’s investigate how a movie gets its name into one of those little envelopes on Oscar night. 

THE NOMINATION PROCESSES

Each of the voting members from around the world is charged with reviewing the projects that are eligible for awards. Members in certain branches are allowed to vote on movies that qualify for that branch, but every member can vote for the Best Picture Oscars category. 

As mentioned before, 301 feature films were eligible this year and that doesn’t include shorts. That’s a lot of movie-watching. One would hope they get free popcorn! 

How do they get to all those movies? Therein lies the rub: They DON’T! Voters tend to rely on film festivals or advance screeners that are sent to them to see the movie during the year. It’s a huge undertaking to send a copy of your movie to all 9,500+ voting members and not every film is entered into every film festival. If a voter doesn’t get a package and/or they didn’t see you at the festivals that they went to, you might slip off their radar.

Oscars Statuette (©A.M.P.A.S.®)
Oscars Statuette (Photo credit: ©A.M.P.A.S.®)

Studios are very strategic about getting the attention of voters. One strategy is to save the Oscar-worthy offerings till closer to the end of the year, so their films are fresh in the minds of the members come nomination time. 

Another is to flood the airways with advertisements. Thought they were just trying to get you to come to their movie? Nope. They always want the voters to notice them enough to carve out a couple of hours of their time. This is extremely difficult for movies from outside of the United States.

 Studios are very strategic about getting the attention of voters.

These producers must spend a major portion of their budget making sure their films get global distribution. It’s an uphill battle to say the least. 

Lastly, some studios employ the personal touch and host screenings near the location of the voter. There are rules against bringing a voter to you, but you can take your movie to them. Having a friend of a friend nudge them to check out your project doesn’t hurt either.

Even with all of these efforts, it’s extremely difficult to get your movie in front of a critical mass of voters, even when it’s widely acclaimed. Take this year’s most notable snub, “The Woman King.” Even though it was in wide release, there are multiple reports of members who simply didn’t see it because they didn’t think it was going to be good or of interest to them. 

There’s even a story circulating that one voter was practically dragged to see it and was surprised that they loved it.  It was also released on the tail of the summer blockbuster season and in the middle of the hype for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

It’s not unfathomable how voters who weren’t accustomed to consuming positive imagery of African people may not have had the bandwidth for two offerings within a month of each other.

It’s not unfathomable how voters who weren’t accustomed to consuming positive imagery of African people may not have had the bandwidth for two offerings within a month of each other. We’ll circle back to that in a while. 

The sad truth is that the Academy voters missed the boat and “The Woman King,” a film the won 23 other awards, garnered not a single nomination.

THE VOTING PROCESS

Once the nominations are released, the members have to get back to work. 

This year the voting in the 23 Oscars categories took place between March 2 and March 7. Even if the voters haven’t seen all the movies during the year, now was their chance to screen a film that was nominated that they missed. The studios know this and there was a huge media push from those films that were nominated. 

Sometimes there’s an ad for a movie that has been out of theaters for months and at the end, there is a line that says, “For Your Consideration.” The “your” in that phrase are the voters. They’re trying to get the members to watch their film again or perhaps for the first time. 

Occasionally, you’ll see a movie be re-released in theaters. That’s not an encore presentation so more fans can see the project. It’s to get the attention of the members during that week of Oscars voting.

Once the voting period is over, the results are tallied, a stern member of an accounting firm places the winners’ names into glossy envelopes (that seem really hard to open on Oscar night sometimes), and they’re guarded until millions of expectant viewers tune in on Oscar night. 

THE PROBLEM WITH THE OSCARS VOTERS

Historically, the Academy has lacked diversity in all realms. It was and still is predominately white. It was and still is predominately male. 

As a result, films and roles that fell outside of the dominant culture of the Academy found it difficult to get noticed, far less get nominated, and even rarer, win. There have been numerous outcries about this and slowly the Academy members have started to diversify. 

Oscars nominees Edward Berger- "All Quiet On The Western Front", Santiago Mitre- "Argentina, 1985", Lukas Dhont- "Close", Jerzy Skolimowski- "EO", Colm Bairead- "The Quiet Girl", International Feature Film, during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' “Oscar Week: International Feature Film” event on Friday, March 10 at the David Geffen Theatre at The Academy Museum in Los Angeles.
Oscar® nominees Edward Berger- “All Quiet On The Western Front”, Santiago Mitre- “Argentina, 1985”, Lukas Dhont- “Close”, Jerzy Skolimowski- “EO”, Colm Bairead- “The Quiet Girl”, International Feature Film, during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Oscar Week: International Feature Film” event on Friday, March 10 at the David Geffen Theatre at The Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

To become a member, you have to be nominated by two current members in your branch (there are a few exceptions) or be a former winner. In a society governed by bias at the time, the possibility of women, people of color or international artists finding a sponsor — let alone two — was insurmountable.  It wasn’t until a loud spotlight was pointed at the membership practice that there were any changes. 

Even with that, the level of diversity of the Oscars nominees and the winners swings back and forth like a pendulum. Arguably, it feels like the Academy attempts to course-correct when they have gone too far in one direction or another. One year the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was trending. The next year there were a record number of non-English nominations and wins by people of color. 

It’s hard to say if there’s a one-to-one correlation but there always feels to be a large swing in one direction or another. 

The level of diversity of the nominees and the winners swings back and forth like a pendulum.

The Oscars have a long way to go before the people who consume movies worldwide feel satisfied that they are representative of all world views. There are surprises every year like “Naatu Naatu,” the original song from RRR, a splashy movie from India. But does this mean that members will now screen more Bollywood films in the future? 

What other international film hubs are underrepresented as well? Will next year be the year that a Nollywood film (Nigerian’s version of Hollywood) makes a splash? What about the small art house film from South America that features an earth-shattering performance from a virtually unknown actress? 

Snubs will happen every year. Every film can’t be nominated (The Best Picture category used to have half the nominees at one point). That said, the goal is to ensure that the snubs don’t always fall to misrepresented artists. 

That’s our wish for the Oscar voter. We offer it up … for your consideration.

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