A peek inside the process used for nominations by committee

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announces its Oscar nominations Feb. 12, the candidates in each category represent a consensus of the 5,739 members, right?

Well, not exactly.

It’s true that for most Academy Awards, such as actor, director or screenplay, the nomination process is relatively simple: Members receive two nomination ballots in the mail in mid-January — one for their respective branch and one for picture. After the ballots are returned, PricewaterhouseCoopers computes the results — and, voila, the nominations.

That’s for most awards, though not all. For such categories as foreign language film, documentary, makeup, live action and animated short and some of the special f/x prizes, noms are chosen via committees. some even have requirements regarding who can vote for the final honor.

The reasons for going this route vary. A few kudos don’t fall under an Academy branch, or may not be presented every year. And the Acad long ago determined that only voters with specialized knowledge can choose nominations for such technical awards as sound editing and visual effects. Besides, not all films up for consideration have played in the local multiplex or are available for home screening.

“Nomination committees exist, in large part, for categories in which it was not possible for people to have seen the films during the course of the year,” explains John Pavlik, the Academy’s director of communication. “The only way to get these films seen is by committee.”

Chaired by a person appointed by the Academy prexy, nomination panels comprise Academy members who have either been invited to join because of their expertise or volunteer to join out of interest in that particular area. Their ranks have remained lean, some contend, because screenings and meetings demand a tremendous time commitment that not many members can make.

Pavlik points out that committees are only part of the nomination process and do not decide who ultimately walks away with Oscar gold. Usually, the final award decisions are made by the entire membership of the Academy. However, for categories such as documentary, foreign-language and short films, only those who attend official screenings of the nominated pics qualify for the final vote.

One member of the foreign-language committee notes that frequently the films are screened two a night, with a meal between the screenings. Tough luck for the second film screened those nights; they’re said to be marked by an often-distracted audience, to say nothing of the voters who simply leave after eating.

Committees create reminder lists and decide which films are eligible for an award or if an honor should be given that year at all. They organize and attend screenings and the so-called bake-offs, where a short reel spotlighting the relevant work is shown.

Most importantly, they choose the nominations for the final ballot. While nom committees, which have been around for decades, certainly streamline the polling process, many wonder at what cost.

Critics have challenged the equ-ity of the nomination process because some panels have consisted of the same few members year after year. They complain that certain committees have be haved more like social clubs with a select membership that ruled by fiat, not fairness — not professionals who take suffrage seriously.

“Committees used to be like an elite group or a secret society making decisions,” says a member of the foreign-language committee. “Sometimes the nomination choices just didn’t make sense.”

However, the member says, that is changing, largely due to the influence of AMPAS.

“There has been a concerted effort on the part of the Academy to ask new people to participate instead of the same group of people making decisions year in and out,” Pavlik says. “The chairs and the Academy as a whole are always trying to get more people to come in instead of fewer.”

The foreign-language committee, for example, has expanded from 50 to 250 members over the past few years.

Another nomination category’s committee that has grown dramatically is documentary, which only this year became an Acad branch, with 130 members. Three years ago, the panel changed its screening process to increase participation, according to Freida Lee Mock, governor of the documentary branch and chair of the exec committee.

“The people who could volunteer to screen all of the documentaries was a very small pool,” Mock explains.

Instead of having the films screened theatrically in Los Angeles for volunteer members from all branches, as was the previous practice, the documentary committee screens by video, a move that doubled the committee’s size from 30 to 60 members, all of whom are doc filmmakers.

“I don’t think that the small size of the committee impacts the fairness,” says Mock. “It’s really a process of one person, one vote.”

Despite the Academy’s labors to increase participation on the committees, final nominees are often determined by a handful of voters simply because many members can’t attend the intense screening schedule from December to February to qualify to vote.

“A small number of people often decided which film was nominated and it still happens periodically with some of these committees today,” says Pavlik. “It’s a worry. We certainly prefer the decision be made by a larger group but oftentimes you simply take what you can get.”

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