Behind the Oscars: Deciphering the System

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The 88th Oscars, 2016.

As one campaign season ended, another one started in earnest – this one in Hollywood – where depicting false events and falsifying your identity are celebrations, not accusations. For Your Consideration Ads run instead of mudslinging commercials, screeners are mailed out instead of voter literature, special publicists are used in lieu of lobbyists, and Q&As replace debates. However, the foundations of a campaign are still undeniable. The results of the Oscar season’s campaigns thankfully have considerably less drastic consequences for the free world, but it does carry a huge weight on the multi-billion dollar industry and entertainment culture at large. Like general elections the process is political, driven by exorbitant amounts of money and the people involved are deeply invested. Unlike general elections, the process is more insular, the campaigning happening to and from the industry since they comprise the voters. While the average movie-goer cannot cast a ballot, the public’s interest and opinion on the candidates can be passionate and doesn’t have to be entirely passive.

With all politics, one should not attempt to take part–even as an outside observer–without a little knowledge of the system at play. The unofficial start of the season is really a race for which publications start posting predictions and polls, which, as our presidential election has now proven, doesn’t necessarily carry all that much accuracy. The actual nomination period occurs between late December and mid-January. While the nominating process happens in the Winter, distributors, producers and studios need to ensure much earlier that their films are seen by the voting members (typically professionals who correspond to each award category), and seen in general as an award-worthy film.

Oscar Week 2016, Q&A panel

Getting the Films Seen by Voters

It is a surprisingly costly and lengthy process of getting the film industry to watch films. There are three main channels for getting your films seen by voters: online links, DVDs mailed to voters, and actual screenings. Online links are by far the easiest and most cost-effective way to disseminate a film, but the least glamorous and potentially worst presentation. Mailed DVDs range between $3 – $15 per disc and need to be mailed to potentially hundreds to thousands of people. Rules are applied to what can be printed and designed on the DVDs, as well as packaging. Screenings are by far the best way for any voter to experience a film. With the least distractions and the best visual presentation, they require extensive coordination and the financial investment in renting a theater and staffing the event.

Because the nominations are typically determined by those who work in the specific field (Cinematographers nominated best Cinematography, etc) there is an informed and appreciative pool of voters that inspires a base-level of confidence in the system at play. The best Foreign Film represents the biggest anomaly to this; first, assigned committees shortlist the entries which have been officially selected by the country of their production, then notables from all across the industry vote on the final five nominees. In general, by keeping the nominating process within each designated field, it allows for the work to be judged by those most qualified.

Oscars Announcement 2016

Post-Nominations Announcement

Once nominations are announced, typically in the early morning by two actors with ambitious publicists, the process changes. With nominations set, all Academy Members are eligible to vote for all fields.  One may argue that it makes it an election where the addition of democratization doesn’t make the process better. Without enforcement of actually seeing the films or even understanding the difference between Sound Editing versus Sound Mixing means that uninformed or misinformed voting can happen.

How Can Non-voters Influence the Process?

The Academy Awards may not be a perfect voting institution, but like many elections, it can be influenced positively by those outside the industry who are passionate and vocal. One of the most significant examples occurred last year where the public outcry over the lack of diversity among nearly all the categories, primarily voiced over social media via #OscarsSoWhite, lead to changes in the following round of Academy member invites. On a smaller scale, inspired moviegoers, perhaps motivated by a high-stakes office pool or by a film they truly love, can take action to contribute to the campaigning in subtle ways.

An easy place to start that shouldn’t be overlooked is financially supporting a film you love. The few dollars of a movie ticket may seem inconsequential, and in the grand scheme of things accurately so, but spending money to see a movie in a theater is an essential step in setting a film up for a positive future. The success of the opening weekend for a film, particularly the award contenders who typically do gradual roll-out releases, significantly shape the rest of the film’s theatrical trajectory.

Treat your ticket like your own vote, and in this case you are encouraged to vote more than once.

If a film does well in the first few weekends, more theaters are likely to pick it up, thus determining its audience and box-office potential. During the crowded awards season, when theatrical bookers see so many films competing for similar audiences, these small steps of support can matter. Treat your ticket like your own vote, and in this case, you are encouraged to vote more than once.

‘Amelie’, at the movies

Spreading the word about your favorite film during campaign season is also a valuable step in contributing to its impact. You can directly share and communicate via a film’s online channels, the success of which are gauged by the interactions they receive. Trailer views, shares of social media posts, and comments that tag other interested people are some of the most effective ways to support a film’s active online presence. Communicating directly with publications and press is another channel for audiences to lend their voice to a contender. Some online articles seem to exist solely to populate an active comments field, but in all cases, the comments get noticed both by other readers and the publication itself. Many publications provide contact information for authors, not for an all-caps email sound-off, but an articulate inquiry into why your favorite film, actor, director or crew wasn’t considered may just strike a chord with the writer. Considering the voting audience is based from within the industry, it is worthwhile to focus these efforts on industry-centric publications (Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, etc).

It may take more than a few impassioned pleas and group theater trips to put that avant-garde South American art film onto the Oscar map or get serious attention for the Vin Diesel stunt movie you loved so much, but it’s important to know how you can use your voice. The Academy Awards, like politics, is determined as much by money and influence as it is by quality, but that same money and influence can be applied to the audiences that give life to films in the most essential way. It may be an industry based on creative storytelling, but it seems quintessential Hollywood to adapt the formula of politics to tell the same story every year–only changing the very end–and still make it the biggest show of the year.

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