Winning an Academy Award not only translates into the highest honor in motion pictures, but its attendant fame fans out far beyond Hollywood, and the legacy it fuels no less than eternal.
But not unlike the Nobel prize, few people know how the honor is determined. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences often works like a secret fraternity, with its methodology for picking Oscar nominees and winners a source of constant head-scratching, and a mystery to most.
From the initial drawing of its charter in 1927 and its first Oscar ceremony in 1929, AMPAS has tinkered with its rules almost annually, right until the present year. Certain categories, such as for documentary and foreign-language film, have been a source of continual controversy in the ’90s. And even the Academy would be hard-pressed to explain why such disciplines as makeup and visual effects offer a maximum of three, instead of five, nominees.
Regardless, in the most straightforward fashion that the AMPAS rules allow, the following is an attempt to explain how the Academy determines who and what will forever carry the distinctions “Oscar-winning” and “Oscar-nominated.”
Picture, general rules
Nominees are selected by active and life members of AMPAS. As with all other feature film categories (except docus and foreign-language pics), eligible movies must have run for seven consecutive days in a commercial theater in Los Angeles County, with the run commencing prior to midnight Dec. 31.
No film that has played in a nontheatrical venue (e.g., on TV) within in the U.S. prior to its L.A. run shall be eligible for awards. A foreign-language movie being submitted for best picture still may be eligible as long as its nontheatrical bow occurs no earlier than six months after the end of its bigscreen theatrical run in its home country.
As with all categories, nominee ballots are tabulated according to a weighted average system (i.e., voters list no more than three or five pics — depending on the category — in preferential order). Final ballots are counted according to a plurality system.
Up to three credited producers will receive the Oscar for best picture. If there are more than three, the recipients shall be the three producers who have performed the major portion of producing functions. Disputes shall be resolved by the Academy’s Producers Branch’s executive committee.
Posthumous nominees are eligible in any and all categories, provided that they meet other AMPAS eligibility guidelines.
In the event that a nomination in any category is ruled ineligible after being announced, it shall be removed from the ballot; no replacement will be named. If an exact tie occurs for an award during final balloting, both achievements shall be honored.
The AMPAS Actors Branch selects nominees by weighted ballot. As with all competitive categories, the general membership selects the winner.
Performances for which all dialogue has been dubbed by another actor will not be eligible. However, dubbed singing is allowed if it does not constitute the entire performance.
If a performance receives sufficient votes in both the leading and supporting categories for a nomination, it shall make the final ballot only in the race in which it receives the greatest percentage of total votes.
If a single actor or actress makes the initial cut for the five nominations for more than one film in a single category, only one will be recognized, i.e., one actor can’t be nominated for two different films in one category. The performance that carries the most votes will stand as the nominee. The tabulators use the weighted system and other “allied procedures” to decide which performance to retain. (This rule is not enforced in any other category – e.g., Sandy Powell defeating herself in last year’s costume design category when her designs for “Shakespeare in Love” won out over her clothes for “Velvet Goldmine.”)
The AMPAS Directors Branch selects the nominees by weighted ballot, with the general membership voting for the winner.
The Acad’s Writers Branch votes for nominees, while the general membership weighs in on the winners in each of the scribe categories (original and adapted).
The Cinematographers Branch votes for the nominees, the general membership for the winner.
The Film Editors Branch votes for nominees, the general membership for the winner.
The Art Directors Branch, except costume designers, votes for nominees, the general membership for the winner.
Eligibility is limited to the production designer(s) and set decorator(s) primarily responsible for the production design, as verified by the pic’s producer. Unlike certain other categories, there’s no limit on the number of individuals who can be nominated for a single film.
Costume designer members of the Art Directors Branch vote for nominees, while the general membership votes for the winner.
The AMPAS Sound Branch votes for nominees, the general membership for the winner.
Each pic’s producer and sound director designate the eligibility of the re-recording mixers (not to exceed three) and production mixer (only one) for award purposes. In the event of a credits dispute, the branch’s executive committee shall determine final eligibility.
Sound editors and post-production mixers in the Sound Branch vote for nominees by weighted ballot. The seven pics receiving the highest votes are then invited to screen excerpts for the sound-effects editing award panel.
The award panel — comprising all sound editors and post-production mixers in the branch, and all members of the exec committee — then votes on these films, scoring each from a 10 (best) to a six.
If two or three productions receive an average score of 8.5 or higher, they shall be nominated for the award. The Acad general membership then votes for the winner.
If only one pic receives a sufficient score, the committee shall recommend to the AMPAS Board of Governors that a Special Achievement Award be given to that film. If none receives a high enough score for such an honor, the committee shall recommend to the Acad board that no award be given.
This award is limited to the one or two supervising sound editors on a picture. Credit disputes are resolved by the category’s rules committee.
The Visual Effects Branch exec committee selects branch members for a steering panel that, by secret ballot, shall select a maximum of seven pics for consideration.
A nominating committee, comprising members of the Visual Effects Branch, shall then review excerpts of the preliminary selections and, by secret ballot, select three nominees.
Individual eligibility is limited to the primary artists (not to exceed four) on each pic.
Winners are voted on by the general Acad membership.
Preliminary nominees, not to number more than seven, are selected via secret ballot by a quorum of makeup artists and hair stylists in the Acad. Individual artist eligibility shall be determined by the makeup award rules committee, comprising Acad makeup artists and hair stylists as well as two governors, one each from the art director and cinematographer branches.
Nominees are selected by a screening panel, composed of makeup artists and hair stylists, who view excerpts from the preliminary nominees.
Then, in the same system used for sound-effects editing, the committee may select either: two or three productions to be final nominees; one production that it recommends for a Special Achievement Award; or no productions, deciding to decline to hand out an award.
To meet eligibility requirements for a nomination, the principal composer(s) and/or lyricist(s) must complete a submission form, accompanied by a music cue sheet and, if applicable, vocal lead sheets, no later than 60 days after a film’s L.A. debut, or by Dec. 1, whichever comes first.
Music Branch members vote for nominees in the three music categories (score, song and song score). If there are 25 or fewer eligible works in any category, the branch’s exec committee may recommend to the Board of Governors that nominations be limited to three achievements. If there are four or fewer qualified submissions, the committee may recommend to the board that no award in that section be given.
The general Acad membership selects the winners.
Short films (running no more than 40 minutes) are divided into two categories: animated and live action. (Documentary shorts, trailers, advertising films, excerpted sequences from a feature, and TV episodes or pilots — aired or not — are ineligible in either race).
Television exhibition does not disqualify a film, provided it occurs after a pic’s L.A. theatrical release or its receiving a fest award, the two prerequisites for Acad consideration. Either event must occur during the previous December to November period.
Submissions must be made no later than Nov. 1.
A short film reviewing committee, comprising volunteer members of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, views all eligible entries. Each screener allots a score of 10 (best) to 5 for each pic. No more than 10 films in each division receiving the highest average score above 7.5 shall continue to the next round. There is no provision in the rules that deals with the possibility of more than 10 scoring above 7.5. In the event that fewer than six are selected in a category, those with the next highest score under 7.5 are chosen until there are six prelim nominees (this is all a bit confusing).
A short film nominating committee, comprising all active members of the Short Films and Feature Animation Brach, then views all first-round selections. Using the same point system as the reviewing committee, three to five nominees are tapped in each category.
Acad members who attend official screenings of the final nominees may vote for the winners. However, those members of the nominating panel who viewed all nominees may vote by mail.
Documentaries are divided into two categories: shorts (which run 40 minutes or less) and features.
Docs must have been exhibited publicly first in a commercial motion picture theater for a minimum seven-day run in either Los Angeles County or the borough of Manhattan during the previous December to November period.
Episodes or segments from a larger doc program are ineligible. TV airing will render any docu ineligible if it occurs prior to or within six months after theatrical release. Submission entry forms and other documents must be received by Oct. 1. One of the maximum two individuals cited for each entry must be the docu’s director.
For short docus, documentary awards screening panels, comprising volunteers from the general membership, will screen, in their entirety, all eligible pics. Nominations (numbering from three to five) are then selected by weighted ballot.
For feature docus, a doc exec panel, composed entirely of Acad members who are actively involved in nonfiction filmmaking, invites more than 50 Acad member documentarians to view the year’s entries, in their entirety, and pare the field down to 12 semifinalists by secret ballot.
The semifinalists are then screened for all local Acad members, in Beverly Hills, New York and San Francisco, to select the final nominees (numbering from three to five) by secret ballot.
The Acad general membership votes for the winners.
Pics are submitted to the Acad by juries in each nation. Each country is allowed one selection, which must have been publicly released for at least a week in its home nation during the previous November to October period. Entries are due Nov. 1.
An Academy foreign-language film award panel, comprising volunteers from the AMPAS general membership, screens the entries (which are announced in mid-November) and by secret ballot selects five nominees.
Final voting is restricted to those members who have attended Acad screenings of all five nominated pics, or who can verify they have attended outside screenings of the films.