Crash course: the Oscars

Last night some of the most recognisable faces on the planet congregated on the famous red carpet, clad in their finest threads to attend The Academy Awards, or as they’re known better to you and I, the Oscars.

In the minds of many, the glitz and glam of this star-studded event equates to daring dresses and Bond-like tuxedos, the unrelenting flash of the press, and camera cuts to the stars in attendance doing their best to hold that picture perfect smile throughout the tediously long ceremony. Here, we dig a little deeper into the biggest night in the Western film industry.

What are they again?

The Oscars, which are officially called ‘The Academy Awards’, is a film awards ceremony held once a year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). The name originally referred to the iconic golden statuettes that winners of the award receive (more on that later). The first awards ceremony was held in 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. Back then, you could get your hands on tickets for the private dinner and ceremony for $5 (roughly $360 today), and as an added bonus the ceremony lasted only 15 minutes compared to the gruelling 4.5 hours of recent times. Since then, the Oscars has grown into the most prestigious award in Western film, and even more so, the place to be seen by A-listers in entertainment every year.

Why the ‘Oscars’?

So, the burning question - where did that perfectly charming name come from? There’s still a little ambiguity over its origins. The most popular that is often retold, is one of librarian and later executive director of the Academy Margaret Herrick, who saw the statue (which was bronze, rather than gold back then), and mentioned to a colleague that it resembled her Uncle Oscar. And thus the Academy staff of the time started referring to the little statuette by that name, probably unaware of the significance the nickname they were using would have in the future.

In 1934, Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky used the name in an article, and by 1939, the Academy itself began using the name, albeit unofficially. A humble tale indeed for an event that has become anything but humble in its extravagance and glamour.

Dissecting Oscar

So the real star of the show - your Pitts, Streeps, Berrys, and DiCaprios aside - is little Oscar himself, whose official name is the ‘Academy Award of Merit’. The gold-plated statuette of a knight holding a sword on top a reel of film, has become one of the most iconic images symbolising film around the world.

While the statuette (yes, it’s an ‘-ette’) is a materially valuable object in its own right, it’s the recognition he is imbued with that really gets the tears flowing during some of the lengthy, melodramatic acceptance speeches - the recognition of one’s peers, after all, is the greatest recognition of all. It probably also looks great on an expensive marble mantelpiece in the sprawling mansions of the winners.

Little Oscar stands at 13 ½ inches and weighs in at 8 ½ pounds, is gold-plated, and costs around $500 to manufacture. During the years of the Second World War, the Oscars were made of painted plaster, due to the metal shortage. Thankfully for the winners, following the war they were able to trade in their award for the real gold-plated ones.

Thinking of selling your Oscar? Not so fast. If you’ve inherited one for example, and think you could get more value out of selling it than as a reminder of your famous relative, there are a few legal hurdles to overcome. The Academy states in its legal disclaimers, that ‘’Award winners shall not sell or otherwise dispose of the Oscar statuette, nor permit it to be sold or disposed of by operation of law, without first offering to sell it to the Academy for the sum of $1.00. This provision shall apply also to the heirs and assigns of Academy Award winners who may acquire a statuette by gift or bequest." In short, they have a right of first refusal, which probably helps keep the Oscar black market at bay, and the integrity and prestige of the award intact.

Quick fact: Walt Disney has the highest amount of nominations with 64, winning 26 of them! Second to him in the nominations rankings - composer John Williams, with 47 and counting.

Who votes? I certainly didn’t…

As is tradition, every year people exercise mild outrage at the choices of winners for the various prizes, if in contention with their own opinion. ‘’Who votes for these things anyway?’’ An important, if often overlooked question.

It is in fact the members of the Academy who have the voting rights, which is around 7,000 people strong, spread across 17 branches of the Academy of Motion Pictures - such as directing, acting, cinematography, and sound. The largest segment of members are actors, giving them a larger influence on who wins the awards each year. However, the list of members is not publicly disclosed, giving the whole thing a very clandestine kind of feel. How do you get in? Like any ‘secret society’, that’s a little difficult. Naturally, you have to work in film production in some capacity. Strictly no press allowed. You’ll need to be sponsored by two current members of the organisation’s branch you wish to join. It’s an elite group, that’s for sure.

There are 24 awards categories that we’ll spare you the tedium of listing here, and the members within their branches vote for categories related to their field. It involves listing in preference order, their top picks for the various categories in which they can vote on. That’s where global accounting agency PricewaterhouseCoopers steps in - which is responsible for devising the mathematical formula by which to count and tally all the votes.

Oscar bait

You might have heard a film described as ‘Oscar bait’, a term referencing the desperation to convene to standard Hollywood tropes in order to win that sought-after prize. This means not only crafting a film in a certain way, but making sure the release date is on point (usually later in the year, lest it be forgotten), and including an actor who's been nominated many times but never won *cough* Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant *cough*. Some would argue that the genre that’s always been good at producing ‘Oscar bait’ is the lavishly produced historical drama. Worthy mentions go out to Ben Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dances with Wolves (1990), Schindler’s List (1993), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), Shakespeare In Love (1998), The King’s Speech (2010), Lincoln (2012), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). The list goes on. Not to take anything away from these excellent films, but many critics roll their eyes when they see a film contrived to reel in as many Oscar statuettes as it can.

However, the tide does seem to be turning. Most would argue ‘Oscar bait’ films have lost their gravitas in recent years, as lower budget, less commercially successful, yet undoubtedly brilliant films have taken home awards. We’ll leave the explanation of this recent phenomenon to the film critics.

If you want to check out the list of this year’s winners, you can find them here.