Don’t be grouchy about the Oscars

The Nuts and Bolts of Nominations

By David Josselyn

On Tuesday, 1/24/2017, the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced. I bet you were thinking, as you probably do every year, “Why wasn’t (fill in the blank) nominated?” It is a matter of frustration for the consumers of Hollywood goods when the Hollywood elite acknowledge the movies, performances, and work that don’t reflect the box office receipts. You may think, for instance, that “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a shoe-in for Best Picture because of the depth of storytelling into the human psyche and the consequences of power, but the film didn’t get one nomination in any category. The films nominated for the Academy Awards rarely reflect box office receipts for the year. If that were the case, then the top nominations would be “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Finding Dory,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “The Jungle Book (2016),” and “Deadpool.” You would have to scroll down to the 24th highest grossing film of 2016 to find the first Academy nominated picture, “La La Land.” Obviously, the nominated films have nothing to do with how much the public spent on the film. To alleviate frustration, it helps to know a little about the nomination process and why you see certain titles and names while others are ignored.

The Academy

The Academy Awards ceremony is completely run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which had its start in 1927 when the MGM studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, talked with his dinner guests about creating a group to benefit the film industry. One week later, Mayer held a dinner for 36 representatives of all creative branches in the film industry and shortly thereafter, the Academy was born with Douglas Fairbanks elected president. In 1928, a seven-person awards committee was formed that recommended awards be presented in 12 categories. The following year, 1929, the first Awards ceremony was held with 270 people in attendance.

Nomination for awards is like the caucus system for politicians. Only registered people in their party get to be involved; some folks file their registration of intent to run; while others get encouraged by their caucus to file. Once on the ballot, only those within the party get to vote for their favorite candidate to go against the challenger from another party. The process for the Academy Awards has not changed much from its inception; an awards committee from within Academy membership makes recommendations for awards. A vote is cast to determine which names end up on the ballot; and then members vote from that list to determine the winners. The difference between the Academy and political party, though, is that membership is exclusively by invitation only. That’s right, the Hollywood elite invite only certain people they deem worthy to be members of the Academy. The membership list is a closely guarded secret, but does include almost 6,000 names spanning all aspects of the movie making industry. Just like politics, producers, actors, and specialists, will have a better chance of being nominated if they lobby the Academy for their work. This is why, of the excellent cast in “Hidden Figures,” only Octavia Spencer is nominated for an award. Does Taraji P. Hensen who played the lead role of Katherine G. Johnson deserve to be nominated? You better believe it! However, Taraji did not lobby on her own behalf because the award is not what is important to her. The rules for what and who can be nominated have developed over the years, as well as expanding categories available to be awarded. The 34 page complete rule book is available for the public if you choose to delve deeper.

Best Picture

In order to be eligible for Best Picture nomination, a film must be at least 40 minutes in length, be released in the prior year (2016) and run for at least seven consecutive days, and be released for paid admission in a commercial theater in Los Angeles County. Yep, that’s right, unless it is shown in the City of Angels, it cannot be nominated for the coveted golden statue. The movie “Hidden Figures” actually opened December 25 of 2016 in a whopping 25 theaters across the nation; exactly seven days before the New Year. The movie then expanded to more than 2,400 theaters in 2017. There are a lot of movies vying for attention at the end of the year and I can only imagine it takes some fierce negotiating by the producers to get their film sandwiched in the last week of the year.

And the Nominees Are…

This year, there are nine nominations for Best Picture: “Arrival” starring Amy Adams as Louise Banks who is tasked with interpreting the language of apparent alien visitors when twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world; “Fences” starring Denzel Washington as a working-class African-American father trying to raise his family in the 1950s; “Hacksaw Ridge” starring Andrew Garfield who plays a WWII soldier that refuses to kill people and still receives the Medal of Honor; “Hell or High Water” starring Chris Pine who plays a divorced father that, together with his older brother, resort to desperation to save their family’s ranch in West Texas; “Hidden Figures” starring Taraji P. Hensen who is on a team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space mission; “La La Land” starring Ryan Gosling who plays a jazz pianist that falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles set to a musical; “Lion” staring Dev Patel playing an Indian boy that was separated from his parents in Calcutta, gets adopted by a couple in Australia, and sets out to find his long, lost family; “Manchester by the Sea” starring Casey Affleck as an uncle who is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies; and “Moonlight” starring Mahershala Ali who plays a young black man from childhood to adulthood struggling to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood.

Based on prior years, the Academy voters like films that reflect obscure parts of society, delve deep into human conflict, or support a socially relevant cause. The past few years winners fit those categories quite nicely; “Spotlight,” “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo,” “The Artist,” and “The King’s Speech.” This year’s list of contenders include one film that stands out from the others as not fitting into this Hollywood ideal of a good picture – “La La Land” (I hate that title personally) which is a straight forward musical love story between two white privileged folks. Guess which movie ties the record for the most award nominations? “La La Land.” Hmm…

In Conclusion

The term Hollywood Elite is actually an apt term for the whole award process. It truly is an elite club of hand-picked individuals that are doing the nominating and voting for the awards. This is also why the “In Memory of…” section does not actually cover all the stars that have died the previous year, but only those who were members of the Academy. Dawning public awareness of this most likely has contributed to the rising success of alternative award shows such as the Critics’ Choice Awards, the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and the People’s Choice Awards (not the public’s choice, but that’s another story). Knowing how the nominations are made and who is voting for the awards can make your enjoyment of the Academy Awards better. You can reflect on how the folks in Hollywood see each other’s work and how out of touch they can be to the general public. Just remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the elite.

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