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What Hollywood Insiders Won’t Tell You About the Academy Awards

Updated: Jan. 31, 2023

Break out your ballots: You may be just as qualified to pick the winners for the Oscar as some official Academy Award voters.

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Secrets of the Academy

We think of the Oscars as the height of filmmaking achievement, and in many cases, it does reflect the best work of the entertainment industry. But there’s also a lot of behind-the-scenes schmoozing that goes into scoring Oscar nominations and wins—not to mention that the Academy members themselves may not be as qualified as you think they are to judge the top awards in film. Criticism of Oscar choices isn’t new, but it seems to be on the rise as many of the movies selected are either too commercial, too obscure, or too conventional for the general public to really understand why they were picked. Let’s take an inside look at the members and why they choose the movies they do. Once you’re up to speed, check out these other things you didn’t know about the Academy Awards.

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Shocker! Academy members don’t watch all of the movies

A poll from the Hollywood Reporter confirmed what many suspect: The people who decide Best Picture don’t necessarily watch the movies before they vote. In the poll, nearly 6 percent didn’t watch the nominated films. Turns out, it’s all on an honor code as to whether Academy members have actually watched the movies they’re voting for. “I feel very committed to watch all the movies because it’s important to give every filmmaker his or her chance,” one member told Good Morning America. “But it’s an accurate statement to say there’s nothing checking if people watch all nominated movies.” Here are 10 classic movies people lie about watching.

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Members should read the screenplays—but do they?

We tend to think of screenplays as just the dialogue the actors say, but there’s a lot more to them: They include stage directions (how the actors move), background info on the characters, and their actions. They also touch on the setting—not just where the scene is set but also what it looks like. For example, the first page of Oscar-winning screenplay Good Will Hunting reads like this: “Int. L Street Bar & Grille, South Boston—Evening. The bar is dirty, more than a little run down. If there is ever a cook on duty, he’s not here now. As we pan across several empty tables, we can almost smell the odor of last night’s beer and crushed pretzels on the floor.” Academy members get the actual screenplay to read for voting, either in hard copy or electronic form, but again, there’s no guarantee they’re actually reading what’s been sent to them.

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The red domino stands out among a line of white dominoes. no pips.
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Voters are not very…diverse

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Academy members were 94 percent white and 77 percent male and that the vast majority of members were over the age of 50. Although the Academy pledged in 2016 to increase diversity, they’ve only been moderately successful, as this year’s snubs of female directors and many people of color have reflected. According to CNBC, the Academy’s membership is currently 32 percent female and 16 percent people of color. These award show scandals rocked the industry.

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oscar statues outside the 88th academy awards in hollywood
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The Academy is growing

In an effort to change the makeup of the Academy, new members are being added at a rapid rate: In 2019, 842 new members were invited to join, and a whopping 928 invitations were extended in 2018—way up from just 322 in 2015. And yes, you have to be asked to join, as well as sponsored by two existing Academy members—unless you’re an Oscar nominee, in which case you are automatically considered. The Academy’s Board of Governors ultimately decides who gets in. Although according to the official rules, membership is supposed to be limited to film artists working in the production of theatrically released motion pictures, some critics have noted that artists more known for their television work are being let in.

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Oscar statuettes are displayed during an unveiling of the 50 Oscar statuettes to be awarded at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony January 23, 2004 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois.
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Academy members can’t lobby

If you’re an Academy member, forget about throwing that Oscar-movie viewing party in your home theater or attending those big screening parties put on by studios. According to official Oscar regulations, after nominations are announced, no Academy member can be listed as a “host” for a screening. Plus, although Q&As with people involved in the film are allowed after a screening, Academy members who weren’t part of the movie can’t moderate the Q&A. And no swag can be given out at screenings, either. It’s all in an attempt to keep voting for the winners as fair as possible in Hollywood. Do you agree with how we ranked every Oscar Best Picture winner, from worst to best?

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Studios spend a lot of money on campaigning

But although the Academy does provide some restrictions on publicity, Variety says Oscar campaigns can cost movie companies upwards of $20 to $30 million, from print and billboard “for your consideration” ads to movie coffee-table books, Christmas ornaments, and even overstuffed pillows. “More money is flying around than I have ever seen,” one veteran distribution executive told the outlet. It makes you wonder how much the eventual winners actually deserve their awards.

But at least some industry professionals want the awards to be based solely on the work—or so they claim. “Oh, man. I’m gonna abstain [from campaigning],” Best Supporting Actor nominee Brad Pitt told Entertainment Weekly last September. “I mean, you never know, and it’s really nice when your number comes up. But the goal is for the film to land, to speak to someone whether it’s now or a decade from now. I find chasing it actually a disservice to the purity of your telling a story.”

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More members can now vote on Best International Film

What’s Best International Feature Film? That’s the category previously called “Foreign Language,” changed in 2020 from the outdated term to better reflect the global filmmaking community. And in order to get more members involved in watching the international films, there is now a two-phase voting process for nominees: In phase one, the Academy’s international committee watches all contenders submitted for consideration and narrows it down to a shortlist of ten; in phase two, all Academy members who watch the ten films, including via streaming services, can vote for the five nominees. If you’re interested in where movies were shot around the world, check out these 65 movie and TV film locations you can actually visit.

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To be considered, films have to run in theaters—at least briefly

The controversy over whether an Oscar-nominated movie has to be shown in movie theaters continues. Last year, some Academy members complained because Netflix’s Roma, which won Best Director, Cinematography, and Foreign Language Film, only played for three weeks across 100 theaters in the United States. But the Academy voted to uphold the rule that movies only need to play for one week in Los Angeles, even if it’s streaming at the same time, to be eligible. This allowed Netflix’s The Irishman, which only played briefly in New York and L.A., to be up for nominations. Although critics of the rule don’t agree, this does reflect how audiences more frequently watch movies today—from the comfort of their own couch, on a big-screen TV, and with the ability to pause three-hour-plus movies to go to the bathroom.

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Tv remote, potato chips in a plate on red background. Watching TV, top view
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But voters can watch from home

The Academy is increasingly made up of members all over the world, so they need an easy way to see the Oscar contenders—and mailing DVD screeners is expensive and not very environmentally friendly. So, voters can watch on a special members-only streaming platform, members.oscar.org. Members with a fourth-generation Apple TV or an Apple TV 4k can also download the Academy Screening Room app to stream the movies.

But the Academy still prefers its members to see films on the big screen. In an email to members last fall, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter, the Academy noted, “We encourage you to view as many films as possible during their theatrical release and at additional theatrical screenings made available.” Whether members actually do that, though, is up to them.

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PR reps vote for Best Film Editing, hairstylists vote for Best Sound Mixing

Nominees are selected only by members of appropriate branches—actors choose acting candidates, for example. But everyone in the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Science can vote for the winner, even if the industry link is tenuous.

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an oscar statue at the 83rd academy awards nominations announcement
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Sorry, actor/directors: You can only be in one branch of the Academy

Some artists are multitalented—and while that might be a great thing, it does limit them in the Academy, because you can only be part of one “branch.” These branches include actors, directors, producers, and writers. Sometimes, like if you’re Lady Gaga, you get invited to more than one branch and have to choose which one to join. (Gaga was asked to join the actor and the music branches.) But because the super secret Academy doesn’t make its list of members public, it’s unknown exactly who is in what branch. And although the Academy is making itself at least a bit more transparent, releasing lists of invitees, it’s still kind of like the (famously Oscar-snubbed) movie Fight Club: “First rule of Academy Award membership? Don’t talk about Academy Award membership.” Did you know that these classic movies didn’t win Best Picture?

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The Academy may not be as elite as you think

In addition, as examined in the Hollywood Reporter, the secret-society-like Academy isn’t as A-list as it appears: Its “secret” is that it actually includes many people who don’t exactly belong there, such as those who haven’t been active in the industry in a while and those who didn’t have much film experience to begin with. But the Academy has taken some action on that front, now giving new members a ten-year membership, which can be renewed if the member has been active in the industry during that decade. After three decades, members earn lifetime voting rights, as do Oscar winners and nominees. (Some of those older members might have even started out when it all began—at the very first major award ceremonies.) For current members who don’t retroactively meet that criteria, they’ll be moved to “emeritus” status; they’re still technically members, but they don’t pay dues and can’t vote.

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To be a nominee, at least one voter has to choose you as the best

While Academy members can list up to ten candidates when nominating for Best Picture, no matter how many votes a movie gets overall, it cannot earn a nomination unless someone ranked it as their first choice. Comedies often get snubbed at the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean they’re not amazing. These are the best 100 funny movies of all time.

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Nominee selection takes a lot of math

If you think you could better select the Oscar nominees and winners than the Academy, you’d better be a mathematician. There’s a reason the Academy hires the accountants at Pricewaterhouse Coopers to tally up the votes: It’s an incredibly complicated process, particularly for counting the nominees. First, branch members vote for their top five nominees in their category, ranking them in order. Then, the accountants use a formula to find the “magic number” to be considered—the number of ballots received, divided by the number of possible nominees plus one. Then, they separate the ballots by first-choice picks, and when a candidate reaches the magic number of first-place votes, they’re in, and those ballots set aside. Next, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, those ballots are redistributed based on second-choice selections, and the process starts again until all slots are filled. Whew, that’s complicated. No wonder the Academy leaves it to the pros!

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Not all members go to the ceremony

Given that the Academy has swelled to around 8,000 members, not all of them can fit inside the Dolby Theatre for the presentation of the awards. So how do you snag an invitation? About half of the seats are filled by nominees, presenters, their guests, and studio executives, and the other half are distributed to members through a lottery system.

Thanks to one short-film director, Dave Mullins, we even know what an invitation looks like, as he tweeted a picture of his invite for the 90th Oscars. It reads: “You and a guest are cordially invited to attend the Academy Awards Presentation immediately followed by the Governors Ball, Sunday the 4th of March at 5 pm, The Dolby Theatre, Hollywood & Highland Center, Hollywood California. Black tie.” As for everyone else, they’re probably watching at home in their pajamas, just like you.

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A display case is seen full of Oscar statues February 20, 2004 in Hollywood, California. These are the Oscar statuettes that will be handed out on February 29 at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony.
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Campaigning can get nasty

In 2010, Nicolas Chartier, producer of The Hurt Locker, was banned from the awards ceremony for imploring Academy voters to cast their votes against Avatar. He wasn’t the only negative one. After the story broke, Nikke Finke, editor-in-chief of Deadline Hollywood, wrote, “For months now I have been sent so many emails from so many studios and filmmakers and flacks and insiders badmouthing every rival nominee this Oscar season and talking up their own.”

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It’s highly competitive to make it to the memory reel

Competition is fierce for a spot in the annual montage of Hollywood’s finest who recently passed away. According to the New York Times, a committee of secret Academy members decides which deceased stars to include, warding off lobbying publicists, family members, and others. If you always shed a tear while watching this segment, you’re not alone: This is why we react so strongly to celebrity deaths.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest