A beginner’s guide to the Oscars
What are the Oscars? Who even is Oscar?
Heard a lot of talk about the biggest and most prestigious film awards but never really known what the Oscars are actually about? Here’s my beginner’s guide to the Oscars.
What are the Oscars?
Also known as the Academy Awards, the Oscars is an annual awards ceremony presented by the American association the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for achievements in the film industry.
The first ceremony was held on 16 May 1929, making the Oscars older than the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys.
Who even is Oscar?
The Academy doesn’t actually know for sure. Probably just some guy!
One story goes that Academy librarian and eventual executive director Margaret Herrick thought it resembled her Uncle Oscar and said so, and that the Academy staff began referring to it as Oscar. Another is that legend Bette Davis remarked that the statue resembled her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson.
They do know that Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky was the first to use the nickname in writing in his 1934 column in reference to Katharine Hepburn’s first Best Actress win. The Academy began using the nickname a few years later in 1939.
What awards are there?
There are currently 24 award categories given out at the Oscars each year across different elements of filmmaking including acting, directing, writing, design and technical aspects.
The most recently introduced award was Best Animated Feature Film which was first given to Shrek at the 2001 ceremony.
There are also a few special Oscars, like the Academy Honorary Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, some of which are awarded at the main ceremony while others have their own ceremonies throughout the year.
Why do the Oscars matter?
The Oscars hold immense cultural power. It’s a strange kind of power – it emerged because we bestowed it and if we woke up tomorrow and decided we didn’t care anymore, the Oscars would eventually disappear – but it’s a significant power nonetheless.
They are seen as a significant achievement for anyone working in the film industry and the marker of a true star (how many trailers have you seen with the words ‘Academy Award winner’ or ‘Academy Award nominee’ in it?).
They also offer smaller films the chance to reach a larger audience. For example, winning Best Picture can significantly increase the box office earnings for that movie.
The Oscars definitely influence which movies I choose to watch – each year, I deliberately set out to watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture which I refer to as my ‘Oscars Best Picture quest’.
Who is the Academy? Who votes for the Oscars?
Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote on who wins. The Academy is a massive organisation made up of ‘film artists working in the production of theatrically-released motion pictures’.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Oscars is the false idea that the winners are decided by a small and dedicated panel of people from the Hollywood film industry who watch all the films together. In reality, Variety estimates that the Oscars will be voted on by 9,375 Academy members from across the film industry at the 96th ceremony this coming March.
So it’s more accurate to think of the Oscars as the People’s Choice Awards for Hollywood’s best. If you’re looking for a small and dedicated panel giving out awards, that would be a better description for the jury at an elite film festival like Cannes or Venice.
All of those 9,000+ people can vote for the big Best Picture award, then there are different branches within the Academy who vote on the specific categories. Actors vote for Best Actor, directors vote for Best Director, production designers for Best Production Design, and so on.
There are also members of the Academy who hold more behind the scenes roles: there are branches for those who have worked in the film industry as executives, in marketing and public relations and agents.
New people are invited to join the Academy each year. People are considered one of two ways: either after they have been nominated for an Oscar or after they have been nominated by two current Academy members from their branch.
In 2023, the Academy invited 398 new members including Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Joseph Kosinski, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd.
Once you’re in, Academy membership does not expire unless you are expelled (like Harvey Weinstein in 2017) or voluntarily resign (like sound engineer Tom Fleischman and sound mixer Peter Kurland in 2022 after the Academy controversially chose to relegate awarding the sound categories during the ceremony’s ad breaks).
Do they actually watch every movie that came out in the last year?
Nope! Like I said earlier, there’s no mystical small group of people deciding the Oscars.
Films must qualify for the Oscars. There’s a big document with all the rules, but essentially a movie must premiere in a cinema and screen in one of six specified areas in the United States for a minimum of seven days. This is why even though the Oscars don’t advertise themselves as a ceremony for American films, it’s still ingrained in their bureaucratic DNA.
If a film has its premiere through any other means – for example, on a streaming platform or cable television network – then it will not be eligible for the Oscars.
This is why you’ll see movies from Netflix like Glass Onion do a limited cinema release before hitting the streaming platform.
An exception to this is the award for Best International Feature Film where each country chooses one film to submit. This is why international hit Anatomy of a Fall isn’t eligible for Best International Feature Film at this year’s ceremony despite being a French film as the French government chose to submit The Taste of Things instead.
Here’s the finite list of movies eligible to win Best Picture this year. It’s only seven pages long.
Who has the most Oscars?
The person with the most Oscar nominations (59) and wins (26) is Walt Disney. Behind him with nominations (53) is composer John Williams and with wins (11) production designer Cedric Gibbons (who actually designed the Oscar statue itself).
The most wins (4) for Best Director is John Ford for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.
The most wins (3) for Best Actor is Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln.
The most wins (4) for Best Actress is Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond. Oscar darling Meryl Streep is the most nominated in this category with 17 nominations but only 2 wins.
The films with the most nominations at 14 are All About Eve, Titanic and La La Land. The films with the most wins at 11 are Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
When are the Oscars?
Each year, nominations are usually announced in January with the ceremony held and winners announced in March.
This year, the nominations will be announced on Tuesday 23 January (Wednesday 24 January in Australia) and the ceremony held on Sunday 10 March (Monday 11 March in Australia).
What is Oscar campaigning?
Due to the nature of the Academy – its massive size and constitution of many busy film stars – film executives have worked out that public perception wins Oscars.
Thus, running a strong Oscar campaign is just as good, or sometimes better, than actually making a good movie.
Campaigning is made up of lots of different elements including a big marketing push from the studio, the leading stars doing lots of interviews, roundtables and magazine covers. Essentially, anything that encourages people to talk about how good your movie is. Usually, a studio will know which movie it will push as its prime Oscars candidate before it even comes out.
The other big factor in campaigning is peaking at the right time. With Oscar nominations taking place in January and final voting taking place in February, that’s when you want people to love your movie most. This is why most ‘Oscar’ movies don’t tend to hit cinemas until the end of the year. What’s better than the movie you’ve just seen, right?
La La Land was a brilliant masterpiece at the end of 2016 but by the Oscars ceremony in March 2017, opinion had shifted and Best Picture was awarded to Moonlight.
The Academy Award nominees for the 96th ceremony will be announced on 23 January 2024.