Every year, late in February (or early March), the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences holds its annual awards ceremony, now officially known as The Oscars. Considered the pinnacle of the US Awards season for cinema, the Oscars have become an spectacle unlike almost any other – reviled, rejoiced and always drawing massive interest across the globe, the Oscars have kept us enthralled ever since the very first ceremony in 1929. But who is this mysterious “Academy” that bestows the highly prized statuette to “deserving” recipients? When the people receiving these awards thank “the Academy”, who are they talking to? Considering most people probably don’t know exactly how the Academy and the Oscars are run, we figured a little historical and technical lesson was needed, to bring you up to speed!
So, here is our idiots guide to the Academy Awards!
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences (henceforth known as the Academy) was formed in the late 20’s, when then-head of MGM, Louis B Mayer, wanted to create a governing body for the film industry to assist in resolving disputes, and form a united front for an industry still in its infancy within the US. Mayer arranged a banquet for a number of Hollywood people – actors, directors, producers, writers and technical staff – to attend, at which point they would become the founders of the original Academy. Membership to the Academy would be via invitation (and continues to be to this day, although now it also includes Oscar nominees and winners as well), and has now expanded from 5 branches, to 17.
At that time, 1927, the newly created Academy had no plans for an awards ceremony, but by the following year the concept of a ceremony honoring the best in the industry was not only mooted, but resolved and put into action. The very first Academy Awards was a banquet, un-televised, and held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929. The first ever recipient of an Academy Award was actor Emil Jannings, while the original Best Picture award went to Wings, directed by William A Wellman.
The term “Oscar” used as shorthand for an Academy Award has a variety of disputed origins, the most popular being Bette Davis’ claim that the statuette reminded her of her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. A number of other claims to the origin have been made, but to date there is no definitive answer.
The Oscar’s annual ceremony awards films from the previous calendar year – for example, the 2014 Oscars are given to films released between January 1st, and December 31st, 2013. To be eligible for an Oscar, a film must qualify thusly: a film must be feature-length, defined as a minimum of 40 minutes, except for short subject awards, and it must exist either on a 35 mm or 70 mm film print or in 24 frame/s or 48 frame/s progressive scan digital cinema format with native resolution not less than 1280×720.
Who decides who gets an Oscar?
There is a long and complicated process for Oscar voting. Only members of the Academy are allowed to cast a vote, and there are two rounds of voting throughout the process. Initially, members of each specific guild will vote for the film or person they feel should be nominated, but only within their own area of expertise – writers will vote for the writing categories, directors for the directing category, and so on. This determines the nominees, based on votes gained, and these nominees are announced at a ceremony in December.
A second round of voting then enables all members to vote for the nominees they want to see win – in any category – as well as Best Picture, while specialist categories, such as Foreign Language Film, are usually done through a selected committee. This is why you often hear the term “for your consideration” bandied about at the start of awards season; films with Oscar worthy attributes are promoted to draw attention, hopefully in the chance of garnering enough guild votes to find themselves up for an award.
What exactly is the Oscar statuette?
The statue for the Academy Award you see on the television (known officially as The Academy Award Of Merit, but shortened down to “an Oscar”) was designed by MGM’s chief art director Cedric Gibbons, in 1928. The statue is a knight holding a Crusaders sword, standing on a plinth depicting a five-spoked reel of film. The five spokes represent the original guilds which formed the original Academy, and the statue is made of 24 carat gold-plated britanium. Each statuette requires between three and four weeks to manufacture, and approximately 50 are made for each annual ceremony.
Where are the Oscars held?
The Oscars are held in late February or early March, in Los Angeles, California. In the heart of Hollywood, the ceremony occurs within a purpose-built auditorium now known as the Dolby Theater. Upon it’s completion in 2001, the then named Kodak Theater became the official home of the Oscars, before Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2012 necessitating the name change. Prior to the Dolby Theater being constructed, the Oscars were held in numerous locations over the years – even in New York! – including Gruman’s Chinese Thetaer just down the road, as well as the Biltmore Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Aside from the main competitive Oscars, what other awards does the Academy hand out?
The Academy currently has five other special awards it presents at various times, for a variety of reasons. The most iconic is the Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, named after the former head of MGM’s production department, and is awarded periodically to “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production”.
The Academy’s other major special award, the Honorary Award, is designed as a catch-all for industry alumni who have contributed significantly to the Academy, to the industry, or to enhancing and promoting cinema, throughout their careers. Awarded at the discretion of the Governors of the Academy, the award is bestowed upon anyone within the Academy’s purview – and it is not limited to previous Oscar winners. The Honorary Oscar is not considered a “competitive” award, and a recipient is eligible to win a competitive award regardless of receiving an honorary one.
The Academy also awards a special Scientific & Technical Oscar, for services to the technical innovations and inventions that make film-making easier, usually at a separate ceremony (a highlights package is usually presented at the main ceremony). In much the same vein, the Gordon E Sawyer Award is given to “…an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.” Lastly, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award is granted by the Governors of the Academy to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.
Of the five awards mentioned, only the Honorary Award and the Thalberg Award are presented to individuals annually, while the Sawyer and Hersholt Awards are bestowed periodically.
Throughout the Academy’s long history, it has also awarded a number of Oscars which have since been discontinued. The most famous remains the Juvenile Academy Award, awarded to children under 18 for their “outstanding contributions to screen entertainment”; the Juvenile Oscars were first presented to Shirley Temple in 1935, and the last recipient was child star Haley Mills in 1961. The statuette presented for the Juvenile Oscar was about half the size of a full-sized version.