On February 25th the most important awards in motion pictures are presented amid a flood of paparazzi, canned jokes and bleached smiles. While this is the moment all Tinseltown has been waiting for, the actual work to decide who gets the coveted awards has been going on quietly behind the scenes since December when the nomination ballots were sent to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The ballots have already been returned to PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the nominees have already been picked. While all the focus is on the awards ceremony, the real story lies behind the scenes. The process of choosing the Academy Awards® is steeped in tradition and determines who walks up on stage, and who just walks.
Voting for Academy Award® winners is reserved exclusively for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Members are drawn from film industry veterans who must be nominated for inclusion into the Academy. Directors, editors, screenwriters, film composers, producers and other film professionals comprise the Academy’s approximately 6,000 members. The active members alone determine which films and individuals receive Oscars.
Each member votes for awards in their occupational category only with the exception of Best Picture. So the Best Actor award is determined by actors; Best Screenplay by screenwriters and so forth.
Pardon Me, Your Chad is Dangling…
Academy members are given ballots numbered one through five. Members may then rank their choices from one to five, so that if his or her first choice is eliminated, the vote moves to the second choice and on down the line. Nominees are determined by proportional voting. If a candidate for nomination receives 20% of the vote, the candidate becomes one of the five nominees, although in reality this percentage is a bit smaller due to how the Academy calculates the lowest number of votes needed to get nominated. This system is used so that Academy members won’t feel their vote will be wasted by voting on dark horse candidates.
For the second round of voting, the ballots are not ranked. It is a straight vote with the winners being determined by receiving the most votes. This is the same voting system used to elect the president of the United States.
And the Nominees Are…
Voting for the Academy Awards® occurs in two stages. The first stage, which occurs in December, determines the nominees. These votes are tallied by hand by a special team at the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers to narrow down the list After the nominees are selected in January, a second round of secret balloting occurs in which only the nominated films and filmmakers can be voted for. These results are the ones that determine the winners.
Why Does the Academy Use PricewaterhouseCoopers?
Pricewaterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) has been entrusted with Hollywood’s biggest ceremony for 73 years. The process has changed very little in this time, with votes still being counted by hand, and perhaps that explains why an accounting firm would be employed to count the votes. However, the actual story of how this accounting firm came to be trusted with tallying votes, begins back during the Depression and has nothing to do with ballots.
The depression hit Hollywood hard. The first couple years weren’t bad. Talkies were new and kept the industry going strong for a short while. But by 1933 several of the major studios were teetering on bankruptcy. When President Roosevelt declared a bank moratorium in march of 1933, this blow sent the studios into a panic. Some studio immediately suspended salaries, some talked of shutting down. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences immediately formed an emergency committee, which suggested that studios should institute a temporary 50% pay cut across the board to save the industry. None of the salary cuts were to last more than eight weeks, once the bank crisis had been resolved. To ensure that the studios restored salaries in a timely manner, the Academy hired Price Waterhouse and Company to conduct audits of the studios’ financial records. This trusted relationship led to the Academy choosing this firm to tabulate the Academy Award® voting three years later – a position the company has enjoyed ever since.
The Envelope Please…
Does Anyone Know the Winners Prior to Opening the Envelopes? Only two partners of PricewaterhouseCoopers know the winners prior to the ceremony. The actors or filmmakers presenting each award do not know the winners until they open the envelopes on stage. As a side note, the phrase: “the envelope please” began as a result of PriceWaterhouse’s security measures. A member of the firm would hold onto the envelopes until an award presenter would be ready to announce the winners. The presenter would then ask the Pricewaterhouse representative for “the envelope please.”
Today, presenters are given the envelopes backstage.
The Big Push…
In late autumn, the studios begin campaigning for their Oscar® contenders. An Oscar® win typically means big box office. Smaller films of Oscar® caliber can receive a tremendous boost in revenue by a win, especially during the traditionally slow box office months of early spring. With this much on the line, studios want to make sure their films get noticed by members of the Academy. Many studios arrange private screenings or send out copies of their films on DVD or videocassette to all the voting members of the Academy to ensure that each member has seen their films. At these screenings, studios are not allowed to give away anything to Academy members. No receptions or promotional materials are allowed. Interestingly, Academy members are not allowed to be sent both a DVD and a videocassette – it must be one or the other. These standards were implemented to curb the tremendous campaigns that accompanied Oscar® contenders in years past. The focus is to be on the film alone, and not the material supporting it.
Can My Home Movies be Nominated for an Academy Award®?
Sure, if they meet certain criteria. But before you go running to get the video camera, you may wish to check out some of the submission guidelines.
What are the Criteria to be Nominated for an Academy Award®?
If you want best picture, your film must be at least 40 minutes in length, have been released for paid admission in a Los Angeles County commercial theater and had a theatrical run of at least seven days. It needs to exhibited in 35mm or 70 mm. If digitally projected, the film must use Digital Cinema formatting.
For the upcoming 2007 awards ceremony (honoring films from 2006), a film must have been released between January 1, 2006 and midnight December 31, 2006. Exceptions are permitted for films released prior to those dates as long as their qualifying run in Los Angeles County falls within submission guidelines.
The Official Screen Credit form must be submitted by its deadline for submission.
These are the basic criteria. More specific criteria can be found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website.
Source: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences