Who really votes for the Oscars?

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The Academy Awards are voted for by the 5,783 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences [AMPAS], but the list of who those people are is not entirely public. And the process is obviously open for criticism.

The Academy is made up of fifteen branches, including directors, those who produce visual effects, sound, and so on; but it also invites people from fields including “public relations”, “executives” and “producers”. The biggest group, with around 1,200 members, is comprised of actors. Membership is by invitation only, requiring sponsorship by two existing members and approval from the board. Once accepted, you’re in for life, which has led to the idea that the club is made of doddering old men, although the average age is actually late fifties.

The Academy is keen to dispel the notion that is secretive. “It struck us a couple of years ago that people had the impression the Academy was a nameless and faceless organisation,” said its president, Sid Ganis. “We wanted to make sure people understand it is anything but that. The Academy functions with membership participating from every single branch.”

To this end, AMPAS now announces the identity of its new members. Recent recruits have included Keira Knightley, Anne Hathaway, Seth Rogen, Ellen Page and Dakota Fanning — the latter being admitted in 2006 at the age of twelve, making her too young to legally watch many of the films.

Not that the majority of films are even watched in the first place. There are 265 features eligible for this month’s awards and it’s hard to believe that the judges watch all of them before returning their votes. (Henry Fonda and James Garner both admitted that their wives filled out their ballots). Of course many of these films are rightly never going to be considered — any Adam Sandler romcom for instance  — which is one of the reasons why studios release their “Oscar Bait” just before the voting takes place, to ensure it’s still fresh in the voter’s minds. Eight of the last ten Best Picture winners went on general release in October or later, just as the DVDs were sent to members “for their consideration”.

Few voters will want to watch the fifty or so DVDs of actual contenders, hence they often look for clues as to what might be a winner. This usually comprises of seeing which films have been nominated for a Golden Globe, which explains why the Globes (voted for by the derided Hollywood Foreign Press Association) are so influential. BBC Film critic Mark Kermode said of the Globes recently, “Somehow they’ve become round-one of the Academy Awards, which is a shame because they’re all over the shop.”

And even those voters with good intentions get waylaid. “These DVDs start to come in December and you think: Oh, brilliant, I’m going to watch all these over Christmas,” Academy member Nick Hornby told The Guardian. “And every single night the most adult movie for consideration gets left at the bottom of the pile… because if you have a family you tend to choose films that are much more family friendly over that period.”

Hornby is one of the few London-based members. Most live in Los Angeles and to help try and persuade them to vote for certain films, annual Oscar campaigns are organised by the studios.

Studio boss Harvey Weinstein was notorious not only for the lavish parties he would host, but for trashing rival films. The Academy has now clamped down on the parties but get-togethers still happen and studios still try to influence voters. Seemingly it works. As the co-chairman of Miramax Films, Weinstein racked-up a massive 249 Oscar nominations and 60 wins, including the Best Picture for The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago. It’s hard to say no to Harvey.

Studio influence, it should be noted, is not something that the Academy is overly concerned about. There are studio heads on the voting panel — including Rupert Murdoch (Fox Studios) — as well as an entire section of public relations people. Among the PR execs are Mary Murphy Conlin, former head of marketing at Pixar; Marc Weinstock, vice-president of marketing at Sony Pictures; and Stephanie Kluft, vice president of global publicity at The Walt Disney Studios.

So, in short, the Oscars are voted for by PRs, heads of studios and by people who almost certainly won’t have seen enough of the films to make an informed decision and therefore base their vote on studio campaigns and what a group of around seventy foreign journalists are saying; a group of journalists, it should be noted, that has been regularly accused of accepting bribes including free holidays, gifts, and hospitality from the film studios in return for giving awards. As Jane Fonda once remarked, “Working in Hollywood does give one a certain expertise in the field of prostitution.”

For Esquire Magazine, February 2012

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