Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the Oscars (or Why There is No Love in the World for Harrison Ford)

Harrison Ford as the mature Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Photo via Wikipedia)

Who gets to be in the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts?

There are 19 branches to the Academy -- 17 for specific fields like Acting, Directing, Set Design; and two – Members-at-Large and associates -- for people who don’t fit in the other categories


To get into the Academy, you have to be sponsored by two people who are already members. According to its website the Academy looks for individuals “who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures.”

People nominated for Oscars are automatically considered for membership.

How many people are in the Academy?

According to the Wrap there are currently 6,124 members. Other websites put it elsewhere around 6,000. The actual number and identities of Academy members are not released. In 2012 member Viola Davis told the Los Angeles Times she had no idea who the other members were.

Having said that, last year the Academy announced that it had nominated 271 new members, including actors Michael Fassbender, Clark Gregg, Barkhad Abdi, Josh Hutcherson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lupita Nyong’o, Chris Rock and June Squibb; directors Mark and Jay Duplass; a whole bunch of casting directors (a new branch of the Academy in 2013); the children’s musical-writing duo that have tormented your every waking moment for the last year and a half (Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez from “Frozen”); Pharrell Williams (and his hat) and Eddie Vedder.

Does the Academy have a Race Issue?

It would certainly seem that way. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times interviewed thousands of members and found that some of the 19 branches are entirely white men. Caucasians make up 90 percent or more of every branch except for actors (where they are 88 percent) and the Academy is also 74 percent male. The executive producer branch and writing branch are each 98 percent white.

Also, how does “Selma” get a nomination as Best Picture but not for Best Director, Best Actor or Best Script?

Having said that, the Academy appears to be trying. (See recent list of members above.)

But note that this conversation is just about African Americans. We haven’t even touched on Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders. Point being, this is a long term project.

How does the voting for nominees work?

Okay, so listen, this is a whole thing. If you’re at all familiar with Parliamentary elections in Australia – a.k.a. elections that involve preferences – you will get this straight away. If you are not, this can seem like gibberish even after you’ve read it a couple times.

It’s actually super interesting, and gives you some insight into why movies get snubbed and how studios angle to win awards. So I’m going to give it a shot anyway. But if you understand better with visuals, you might check this brief video from the Wrap, which uses poker chips; or the LA Times this year has this great visual.

First of all, to be considered, a film has to be at least 40 minutes long, has to have premiered in a movie theater in the prior calendar year and it must have played at least 7 days in a row in a Los Angeles County movie theater. (Movies are a Hollywood business, baby. Gotta make a visit and bow down to the king.)

When it comes to nominations, Academy members each vote for best film and in their own category – e.g. sound, production design, actors – and for best movie. And select groups of members are chosen to see and vote for best foreign film and best documentary. (Which is a little weird, as there is a documentary film category. And there’s also plenty of non-Americans in the Academy. But there you have it.)

Here’s what makes the process interesting: they don’t just vote for one film/person in their field, but instead vote for five, ranked in order of preference. And since this is just the nomination process, it’s all write in. They’re given a list of possibilities, but beyond that, they can vote for whatever they want. “Love Guru,” “Paul Blart,” “Furious 7” – have at it.

(Wouldn’t it be great to be able to know about the movies that got just one vote? The pity/protest/super fun votes?)

The fact that it’s all write-in also means that when it comes to acting performances, it’s up to the individual members to decide whether a given performance qualifies as best lead or best supporting. The studios make big pushes in Variety and elsewhere to indicate where they’d like specific performances to end up, but they don’t control the process. So you could have someone who doesn’t get a nomination because their performance splits the votes. It’s semi-unlikely, but not impossible.

So – and this is where those visuals may come in handy – Price Waterhouse counts the ballots, then divides the total number of votes by the number of nominees wanted plus one. So for Best Actor, they divide the number of ballots cast by six; for Best Film, they divide the number by eleven. That number is the magic number, a.k.a. the number of votes you need to be a nominee.

Then the Price Waterhouse folks make piles of ballots organized by everyone’s top choice. So this year, Benedict Cumberbatch had a pile, Bradley Cooper, the other nominees, plus who knows, maybe a hundred others.

Should any of the piles already have enough votes, they’re immediately put aside as nominees. Well done, them.

Then, for the piles that remain, Price Waterhouse takes the ballots from the smallest piles – sorry, Godzilla! – and looks to see what those ballots’ second choice was, and adds them to those piles. Or if the second choice has also already been eliminated, the third choice. And so on.

(Confused? Check out thosevideos, you’ll get it immediately.)

As piles hit the magic number of votes, they’re set aside. If they get through the second choices of all the piles beyond the top five, and still they don’t have five nominees, they start again at the smallest pile and look to the third choices, and add them to those piles. And so on until five films have gotten across the line.

One additional wrinkle – when it comes to Best Film, they only go through this process once. That is, they make the piles. They put aside as nominees any that right away have the requisite number of votes. Then they turn to the vote-getters with the smallest number of votes and add them to the piles of their second choices. But then, instead of continuing to do this again and again until they get ten nominees, they stop. Whatever number of films have crossed the line, those are the Best Picture nominees.

So this year, some people have been upset that they only chose eight Best Picture nominees, particularly because almost all of the films selected are sort of small, independent, art house films, not at all mainstream. But that’s not because the Academy made some sort of choice that other films weren’t worthy. It’s just that only eight made it across the line.

Playing the Numbers

So, here’s the fascinating thing about all this. Given this is how it works, studios can be super-targeted about how they try to sell their films/potential nominees. Because it doesn’t take that many votes to become a nominee.

So for instance, according to the Wrap in 2013 there were 1,176 members in the Acting Branch of the Academy. Given that, to get nominated for Best Actor, the maximum number of votes you need – that is, if everyone votes (and when does that ever happen in life?) – is 197. That’s not many.

And the Actors are the biggest branch of the Academy. In Costume Design. there were supposedly 108. So you needed 18 votes maximum. Cinematographers, 39. Directors, 63.

Point being, the Academy may be big, but when it comes to the nominees, it’s handfuls of people who decide.

Is the Process for the Actual Oscar Winners Different?

Slightly. Again, members vote for Best Film and in the area of their expertise. But this time, in the area of their expertise they vote only for their favorite; the winner is the individual who gets the most votes. They might win by a landslide; they might win by one vote. Given the small size of these branches, many of these votes are almost certainly very close.

When it comes to Best Film, the Academy wants “the consensus favorite.” So members are asked to rank all contenders (in this year’s case, all 8 films). Then Price Waterhouse goes through the ballots, again creating piles, moving ballots from the smallest piles into the larger until there is a film that has 51 percent of the vote.

Here’s what that means: the winner of Best Film each year is likely NOT the favorite of more than half those gathered, but rather a combination of some people’s favorite film and some people’s second, third, even fourth choice.

Okay, Here’s Where I Break You

The same holds true with nominations. Which means, if you’re wondering why some “obvious” people weren’t nominated – like why wasn’t Ava DuVernay nominated for her direction of “Selma” – it could very well be that it’s not because people didn’t vote for her, but because the wrong people did.

What I mean: again, the way this works is everything is put in piles by first choices, right? And then the ballots for the directors, etc., with the least votes are shifted to their second choices, third choices and so on until five nominees get across the line. 

If your vote is for one of the top contenders right from the start, your second choice never comes into play. Because your top choice already has you in one of the soon-to-be-nominee piles.

So only the ballots from the contenders that get the lowest votes are important in the long term.

I broke you, didn’t I? Here’s what that means: Ava DuVernay not getting nominated doesn’t mean she wasn’t one of the most popular choices; if you looked at all the director ballots, she clearly didn’t get enough number one votes. But she might have been number two or three on most of the rest.

But most of those where she did rank that high could very well have been ballots that were already being counted for someone else. So what kept her from getting a nomination is not that she didn’t have enough votes, but that she wasn’t in the top two or three on the right ballots – that is, on the ballots of the people whose first choice was Michael Bay or the director of “Atlas Shrugged, Part III” (a title I honestly did not make up).

Point being – this is a somewhat crazy process.  

Why do popular movies, like "Star Wars," "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "The Lego Movie" not get nominated, while movies that will never even make it to most mainstream theaters do? (Put another way: WHY DOES THE ACADEMY HATE MY HARRISON FORD?)

First of all, sister, I’m with you. Recent years have not been the best of Ford’s career, but over the course of 50 years he has put together an extraordinary set of performances. He deserves recognition. Academy, MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

Second, I often think there should be a “Best Genre Film” category, because scifi/fantasy/superhero are more or less Academy poison. I don’t know why that is – especially today, when many of the people voting have made a lot of money and acclaim being involved in films like this. And not for nothing, “Guardians of the Galaxy” was unexpectedly one of the most satisfying films of the year. I know, it starred a talking raccoon and a tree. I’m as surprised as you are. But it was.

My hunch is that part of why these strange selections occur is not because Academy members are more ‘cultured’ or snobs, but in part because they’re professionals in their fields and therefore see things in a way different than normal blokes like us. And also, as Academy members they’re exposed to all kinds of movies the rest of us aren’t. They don’t have to worry about whether they can find a movie theater that is showing “Being Alice.” They have access to all the big films.  

So I don’t know, maybe if our local cineplexes showed all the Oscar contenders alongside "Spandex III: Stretch Marks!," the Academy choices would make more sense to us.

And in a way, it’s good the some of the films chosen aren’t the ones we’ve heard about. Through its nominations the Academy is able to bring exposure to performances and displays of talent that are important and lovely and that otherwise would go unseen.

Lastly, see my answer directly above about DuVernay as director. In a weird way what gets you nominated is making sure that the films with the least number of initial votes have you as their second choice.

So, Harrison Ford lovers, let us warm ourselves around the idea that in fact Harrison may very well be one of the Academy’s favorites, it’s just that the riff raff voting for “I, Frankenstein” don’t like him.  HAN SOLO in 2015. 

Why is it called an Oscar?

You know, there are only stories. Originally it was just called the “Academy Award of Merit.” Which is a mouthful.

Then, supposedly, a librarian at the Academy said the statue looked like her Uncle Oscar. And that stuck.

The Academy did a short video about this that you might like.

Has a Jesuit ever Won an Oscar?

Yep. In the 1990s then-Jesuit priest Chris Donohue won an Academy Award in Short Subject for a film he produced called “Visas and Virtue,” about a Japanese Holocaust rescuer known as the “Japanese Schindler.” I remember the occasion well; I was watching the Oscars, as I always do, daydreaming that some day maybe I could represent the Society up there, what I might say, who I would thank.

Then suddenly there he was, standing there, in his collar, stealing my entirely unrealistic and fictional thunder.

Chris just took over Paulist Productions in Los Angeles. Paullst is the company that did “Romero” and also “Entertaining Angels”, about Dorothy Day. It sounds like a great match. It’ll be exciting to see what they get up to.

Finally, Who’s Going to Win?

Lot of talk in these final days that “American Sniper” is going to sneak in and walk away with the top nod. I don’t know – it’s definitely the film most ordinary people have seen. It’s done a great box office. And it’s really divided people, which is good in the sense that it’s got people talking.

Still, I’d say “Boyhood” is probably the film to beat. At the time the votes were being cast, it had all the momentum. And “Birdman” is probably an outside contender, although I gotta be honest, it did not do a lot for me. (The ending – what?)

But, if by “win” you mean who’s going to spend three plus hours watching speeches and commercials that are nowhere near as interesting as at the Super BowL and then wonder why this is taking so long and which celebrity is going to pull an Adele Nazeem and how do I get someone to retweet my joke that I think is funny and then wonder tomorrow why they feel so tired, I think we all are. 

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