The Academy Awards: Beyond the Glitz and Glamour
"I think the world would be unliveable without art" - Steven Soderbergh
The Academy Awards, more popularly known as The Oscars, are awards for artistic excellence and technical merit in the international film industry. Today, the prestige of these awards is recognised and acknowledged throughout the world, and winning an Oscar is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon an artist for their endeavours in a particular film. These awards are presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Over the years, this coveted event has transitioned: it was never simply about the arts, but today The Oscars reflect glitz, glamour and extravagance: they’re a representation of the elite 1%, as well as a marketing ploy for all aspirational filmmakers. Winning a golden statuette can skyrocket an actor to stardom, create millions for a movie’s box office, as well as boost a studio’s prestige and image. Nonetheless, if the stars are aligned - a nomination alone can change the course of your career.
Let’s dig a little deeper into why The Oscars symbolise the benchmark of talent and excellence.
Academy Awards: The Early Days
Initially, The Academy Awards began as a union-busting effort. In 1926, Louis B Mayer, an American film producer, enlisted persons in different fields across the film industry and created the Academy, as an endeavour to pacify the labour troubles, as well as present a rose-tinted perception of Hollywood to the larger public.
The very first award ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 - where a select crowd of 270 guests was invited to the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel for a dinner party. This academy is the brainchild of Mayer, who was previously the head of MGM Studios.
With the nearing end of the roaring 20s, and the economy at the edge of the Great Depression, there was a desperate need to uplift the artists and technicians alike. The Academy Awards sought to unite the five distinct branches of the film industry under one roof: Actors, Directors, Producers, Technicians and Writers.
The notable Oscar statuette, designed by Cedric Gibbons, the main Art Director at MGM Studios, is widely regarded as the academy award of merit. It depicts a person standing with a crusader sword on a can of a film reel. This can of film is designed with five specific spokes: each of which represents the above-mentioned branches of the industry. Since then, the award categories have branched out into several other fields.
Here's a video that delves into the history of The Oscars, and their claim to fame:
Nominations, Voting Procedures, Academy Members: How Does It All Work?
The Academy is an exclusive club of the maestros: they wield the power to make or break millions of careers, and they hold onto this power with authority and grace. As of December 16, 2020, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had 9,427 active members. Each of these persons belongs to one of the 17 branches of the Academy, and they nominate for films under their specific branch only. A person belonging to the directorial branch cannot nominate films for best production of the year. The only category that is open and universal to all members of the Academy is that for the Best Picture.
Actors, cinematographers, costume designers, directors, documentary editors, makeup artists/hairstylists, music producers, production designers, short films/feature animation, sound, visual effects, and writers are among those who are the underdogs of the film industry. At least one Oscar category is present in each of these films. However, casting directors, executives, and marketing/public relations are three branches that have yet to be recognised with awards.
How does one become a member of the Academy’s?
Any person with feature film credits can apply to be a part of the committee. Each candidate goes through the rigorous screening process and must be approved by each branch’s executive committee, and then their application is submitted to the main board of governors.
Madhabi Mukherjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Tabu among the actors, producers Aditya Chopra and Guneet Monga, music composers Usha Khanna and Sneha Khanwalker, production designers Subroto Mukherjee and Amit Ray, costume designers Dolly Ahluwalia and Manish Malhotra, sound designers Biswadeep Chatterjee, Debajit Changmai, cinematographer Anil Mehta, and editor Ballu Saluja are amongst the film personalities that have been invited to represent India in the Academy as of 2018.
Traditionally this exclusivity can be interpreted as an attempt to maintain the dominance of older white men in the Academy - the larger demographic in the film business. Inclusivity and diversity in The Oscars have always been subject to scrutiny, but before we dive into that, let's un-complicate the process of how a film actually gets nominated and goes on to win The Oscars.
Best Picture Nomination
The best-picture ballot is often critiqued for its peculiarity. Usually, the AMPAS members vote for one choice in their particular category. But with so many creative contenders for the best film category, it seemed slightly unfair for a film to earn the award with only 10% of the votes. Thus the Academy opts for preferential voting, where the committee members rank the nominated films in their personal order of preference. In layman's terms, a film may not win in terms of hard numbers, but in terms of consensus. A film that is loved by a select few loses out to a film that is widely liked by the majority.
Now that we have the process cleared and good to go, how does a film get noticed, and nominated for these awards? While there is no clear-cut formula to get your film nominated, certain repetitive patterns have been observed in the intricacies of the process. There has been a trend for longer films to be nominated for best films, and they also have a better shot at winning. 76% of the winning films since 1960 have been over two hours long. This may be because longer films provide more scope for character development and plot propelling, and thus are deemed as more important than shorter films.
Movies are also judged not only on their cinematic achievements but also on the buzz they create on social media platforms. The more buzz a film creates, the higher the probability of it grabbing a nomination.
Another way to gain recognition during the award season is through participating in the film festivals that have recently gained momentum. Winning an award in one of these festivals, most notably in the trifecta of Oscar Bait Launching Pads: Venice International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Watch the video linked below to gain better insight into this:
93% of the best films are classified under the genre of drama, while action and fantasy only attain a meagre 2%. Actors as well are 9 times more likely to receive a nomination for their work in a drama.
This presumed formula has also given rise to Oscar Bait Films - which cater specifically to these guidelines and thus are a safer bet for the film and production studios. Since 1980, 89% of the best picture winners have been restricted to one of the five particular film themes: Adapted, True Story, Period Drama, Biopics, and Disability.
This behaviour kills the ingenuity and authenticity in the industry and shuns the voices of other creative independent artists.
#OscarsSoWhite, Exclusion and Uni-Dimensional Representation
Oscars, through the decades, have been the highlight of the year. It’s the one occasion that houses the geniuses and the prodigies of international cinema, under one roof. Apart from this, it is also broadcasted in real time and thus is accessible to millions of viewers across the globe. It is no surprise then, that one would expect The Oscars to be a platform for monumental change - not only in media representation but also in social justice. The Oscars have gained a lot of flack for catering explicitly to the white, heterosexual demographic - and systemically propelling the masculine narrative forward. This pattern can be traced back to the start of the Academy Awards, and although there has been progress - is it sufficient?
The Awards Season in 2015 saw one of the greatest uproars, with the boom of the #OscarsSoWhite Campaign. This hashtag, started by April Reign, was a prompt response to the revelation of the nominees for the 86th Academy Awards - in which all 20 acting nominations were being given solely to white actors.
This hashtag and the outrage along with it, leveraged serious claims against the Academy Awards and their Committee. This hashtag acted as a catalyst for an ongoing social justice campaign that blazed the trail for several pertinent conversations and discussions about diversity and inclusivity in the arts. The hashtag was revived in 2016 as well when the nominees again, to no one’s surprise, were dominantly white and male. This shed some much needed light on the long-existing inequities in awards recognition, and the suppression of authentic art under the guise of voting for whoever’s the best.
“It could’ve been a bunch of different things — there were no women in the directors' category, there were no visibly disabled people nominated — so #OscarsSoWhite has never just been about race. It’s about the underrepresentation of all marginalised groups.” - April Reign
The main issue lies not in the nominations themselves, but also within the committee of the Academy. The statistics showed that the membership is around 94 percent white and 77 percent male. People from a certain background are more comfortable with character representations that resonate with their culture and beliefs. Films with black talent are only considered when they’re hyper-focused on historical trauma and slave narratives, instead of independent storylines. ‘12 years a slave’ is a staunch example of this. While this does not mean that the film was undeserving, it does raise a question of whether black films are only viewed as worthy of prestige when they are showcasing black trauma narratives and structural violence. This unidimensional perception of the community questions the morality of The Oscars and what they stand for.
In the 93-year run of the awards, only seven women have been recognised in the category, even though more than a dozen films directed by a female filmmaker have been nominated for best picture during that time.
Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) and Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) are the only other female directors who have been up for the best directing award.
Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win an Oscar in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.” Halle Berry is the only woman of colour to have ever won the Best Actress award, while Chloé Zhao was the first woman of colour to have ever won Best Director, and this was in 2021.
“A more structural and systemic change must occur, not just within the Academy but Hollywood as a whole. The decisions about what films to green light, who tells those stories and how they are told must also be more inclusive of marginalised communities.” - April Reign
Embracing Change: The 94th Academy Awards
The Academy Awards are evidently embracing change, as well as colour. Four actors of colour earned acting nominations this year – Will Smith (‘King Richard’) and Denzel Washington (‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’) for best actor, and Ariana DeBose (‘West Side Story’) and Aunjanue Ellis (‘King Richard’) for best supporting actress.
Jane Campion is the sole female filmmaker that has been nominated this year, for her film - ‘The Power of the Dog’. Several international films have also received nominations and accolades - such as ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Writing With Fire’.
With his nomination for West Side Story, Steven Spielberg became the first person to get best-director nominations in six separate decades, starting in the 1970s. Judi Dench earned her eighth career acting nomination with ‘Belfast’, making her the most-nominated non-American actress of all time.
As of June 2020, the Academy board announced that it had actually surpassed its goals of inclusion, and the new 2020 member class was “45% women, 36% underrepresented ethnic/racial communities, and 49% international from 68 countries.”
Theoretically, an Oscar nomination can pave the way for more ambitious passion projects — the kind that leads to larger pay checks and filming budgets, and this makes their art more mainstream and accessible. If there is an entire class of folks that cannot get admission to those nominations, whether due to personal finances or how the industry tends to treat women and people of colour, then there’s also a severe disadvantage to the existence of the Oscars.
The Oscars are reckoned as the pinnacle of success, and thus it is important for them to stay true to their roots and act as a platform for budding talent across languages, borders, and races.
As we await the results of the 94th Academy Awards in anticipation, it is essential to reflect upon the values of these awards, and what they mean for the growth of our society at large. Art imitates reality after all.
Films are stories and personal narratives, and they are supposed to stay with you long after the credits roll out. Your favourite film should be one that resonates with you at an individual level, not one that wins multiple accolades.