Planning an Oscar party? Then it may behoove you to have a basic understanding of the behind-the-scenes dynamics of the Academy Awards before placing your friendly wager. Remember, the Academy Awards is primarily a celebration of the motion picture arts, but it’s not completely unsullied by politics and shadowy backroom deals. Nor does informed judgment ultimately prevail.
Why did that get nominated for an Oscar?
First things first. The nomination process. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an exclusive club, made up of members who pass the torch to their heirs-apparent through a nominating and sponsoring procedure, much like any other exclusive club bringing its next generation into the fold. It’s all about who you know.
There are approximately 6,000 members of the Academy, divided into groups according to professional expertise (actors, directors, cinematographers, etc.). Members of each group nominate their professional peers, the top five of which in each category are placed on the official ballot (except for Best Picture, which everyone votes for). So, at the ground level anyway, qualified inquiry plays a role.
However, once the nominations are settled, everyone from every category gets to vote on everything. Thus, actors vote for costume design, film editing, documentary short, et al., and equally, screenwriters vote for sound editing, visual effects, cinematography… This can have a profound effect on the final tally, considering that the largest constituency of Academy members is actors.
The Golden Globe Myth
It may seem reasonable to presume that Golden Globe winners are heavyweight contenders for Oscars. Both ceremonies are gala, highly-publicized events brimming with the same glamorous celebrities. The truth is, Golden Globe voters don’t vote for Oscars and are not members of the Academy. Therefore any corresponding victories between the two awards ceremonies is purely serendipitous. The voters for the Golden Globes are members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, numbering less than one hundred, foreign celebrity journalists with no movie-rating credentials any more legitimate than John Q Public. The reality is that the Golden Globes is just another prime opportunity for Hollywood’s self-promotion, with no genuine cachet.
Hollywood operates via series of “backroom” deals, quid pro quos. Personal and professional interests are eagerly presented for trade between industry pros. For example, a lot of industry professionals (actors, directors, set-designers, etc.) would like to do projects they find challenging and/or interesting but which won’t likely sell at the box office and therefore aren’t going to be clamored over by a studio—say, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Helen Keller in a musical adaptation of “The Miracle Worker.” So, studio heads will often broker “gentlemen’s agreements,” promising essentially to get Such-and-Such “indie” project to the table if So-and-So high-caliber name attaches his/herself to the studio’s current pirates-vs.-aliens blockbuster free-for-all.
The Academy Awards (the actual ceremony, as well as satellite events and parties) serves as a grand forum for just these kind of agreements. Studios count every Oscar vote as a potential deal-maker. Oscar nominations and wins burnish a studio’s luster in the eyes of the movie-going public, which translates to dollars and buyer-return. So, say I’m Harvey Bobstein, head of Bobstein Films, and I want my movie “The Victorian Dandy” to win the Oscar for Best Picture. I know every vote counts. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s vote counts, his friends’ votes count, and their friends’ votes count… So, I go to Mr. Hoffman and say, “Can I count on you to vote for You-Know-What?”—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—“Because I hear So-and-So would really like to ‘have a meeting’ about your Helen Keller vehicle.” Thus another movie deal is struck (the first in a long line of such deals before any actual movie gets green-lighted, but it’s a start).
Another way a movie’s Oscar potential is bolstered is through saturation. An example of this phenomenon occurred in 1995 (representing the best of ’94), when “Forrest Gump” won Best Picture over “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “Pulp Fiction.” For years now “The Shawshank Redemption” has been rated number one among movie watchers on IMDB (imdb.com, “The Internet Movie Database”); “Pulp Fiction” weighs in at number four; “Forrest Gump” dangles down around fifty. And too, “Pulp Fiction” has been roundly heralded as a groundbreaking, Hollywood-revolutionizing film, a modern classic among critics. So, why did “Forrest Gump” win? Because EVERYBODY saw that movie. It had market saturation going for it. Hardly anyone had even heard of “Shawshank.” (Keep in mind, voters don’t have to actually see the movies to cast a ballot.) And “Pulp Fiction” was, frankly, ahead of its time. Too edgy. Too brazen, hip, and gross.
With movies, as with every other product, name-recognition—“branding”—is crucial. These days to overcome the “Forrest Gump” phenomenon, movie studios aggressively push their under-the-radar “important” movies to Oscar voters, sending them promotional materials and copies of the movies for home viewing. But, alas, to handle such promotion, a movie studio has to have an adequate budget. You can’t just go out and make the best movie of your generation with a webcam and credit card and expect to get a copy in every Academy member’s mail slot in time for voting. So, again, money and power have a huge effect on Oscar potential.
Another factor to watch out for is trends. What has won in the past, for example? What didn’t win recently that might be compensated for this time around? Who is well-liked or universally revered (Clint Eastwood)? There are also technical professionals, behind-the-scenes legends in their field you may never have heard of, who’ve never been honored and are ageing fast. Their peers might finally be ready to give them a statuette.
Finally, remember: actors make up the largest percentage of Oscar voters, and actors like to congratulate themselves on taking risks. Who gained or lost the most weight this year? Who played the broadest caricature? Who ate a bug or pulled out his/her teeth or swam through sewage? Often, just these kinds of gut responses ultimately turn the tide.