Some insights into the way Academy members vote

Is there a formula for winning a music Oscar? Are there certain guideposts or telling patterns that can correctly predict a win for song or score?

This awards season, Variety set out to find the answer, examining half a century of Oscar history and talking to Academy veterans and longtime observers in search of trends and indicators.

Predictably, not everyone agreed. In the spirit of William Goldman’s edict that when it comes to Hollywood success, “Nobody knows anything,” some interviewed for this story felt that not only was nothing certain, some Academy choices were so inscrutable they thought that they must have been the result of mismarked ballots or questionable tabulation.

So what are they thinking when they sit down to mark their ballots?

“When you vote for an Academy Award, you are basically voting on a memory,” says former Acad rules committee chairman Charles Bernstein. “It could be a month or six or eight montshs later. What you recall is having said to yourself at some point during the film or immediately after, ‘Wow, that (music) was great.’ The seed is planted while you’re hearing it.”

While many in the film industry think of themselves as music mavens, mostly of the casual variety, cynicism reigns among more knowledgeable Oscar voters.

“I don’t think the members pay a hell of a lot of attention to the scores, unless there’s a melody that sticks in their heads when they leave the theater,” says a longtime member of the writers branch.

“The score and song awards are intimately tied to the feeling the film generated and only occasionally based on the value of the score or the song itself,” believes one highly placed studio executive.

Still, says “Inside Oscar” author Damien Bona, “Despite what we hear sometimes, I think most Academy voters do take voting seriously. So if they have music available, they probably do sit down and listen to it.”

Recent best song wins by rappers Eminem and Three 6 Mafia, however, suggest that it’s much harder to predict a song winner than it used to be.

“It’s become one of those categories that determines who wins the pool at the party,” says Bona. “It used to be documentary or live- action short, but now Best Song seems to be a crapshoot too.”

Oscar insiders also note official ballots do not mention the name of the composer or songwriter (only the film title is mentioned under “score” and the film and song title under “song”). So unless you knew that Bob Dylan wrote “Things Have Changed” for “Wonder Boys,” the composer’s identity often doesn’t factor in.

MAKING AN IMPRESSION

So come ballot-marking time, what do voters remember? Some common scenarios emerged from our interviews:

  • The film was about music (see “Round Midnight,” “The Red Violin”). “Any movie that focuses attention on music has a terrific advantage over pictures that are about other things,” says Bernstein, also a composer and longtime music-branch governor.

  • The film struck an emotional chord, and the music was a key contributor (see “Doctor Zhivago,” “E.T.,” “Il Postino”). “Music is an emotional medium,” says one veteran Oscar consultant, “so it’s often an emotional vote. If there’s a haunting theme of any kind, and people remember it, that’s what wins.”

  • The music seemed intriguingly exotic (see “Frida,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). “Voters like international dining when they’re voting for music,” says composers’ agent Richard Kraft. “Over the last two decades we have sampled Italian, Polish, Indian, English, Argentinian, Canadian, German and Chinese. It’s definitely been a disadvantage to serve up a home cooked meal.”

  • Choral music was prominently featured, helping neophyte listeners to notice (see “The Lion in Winter,” “The Omen”). “The addition of a choir makes a huge difference, especially if it’s right up front in the mix,” says a record-industry exec.

  • An epic film, with lots of room for grand-scale symphonic music (see “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The English Patient,” “Lord of the Rings” movies). “The longer the characters shut up for extended periods of time, the more likely that people will notice the score,” says Kraft. “Nothing beats a romantic plane ride or a sweeping battle to offer the composer a canvas to paint the kind of music that really makes an impression.”

  • Voters confused “score” with “lots of songs” (see “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”). This is no longer possible, since the recent addition of a rule that prohibits musicals from competing in the score category.

  • The song or theme is a commercial hit (see “Titanic,” “Love Story,” “Chariots of Fire”). “Sometimes the music is ubiquitous, and you can’t go anywhere without hearing it,” says Bona, acknowledging that radio play is nowadays a good deal less relevant than it once was.

  • The song is prominently featured (see “Moon River” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Jai Ho” in “Slumdog Millionaire”) “It would be very hard to walk out of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and not remember the music video with that great song at the end of the movie,” says a veteran observer.

  • There is no rational explanation (see “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow”). “Everyone was dumbfounded,” says another longtime Oscar consultant, who thinks “they voted for it just so they could show their kids and grand kids that they can be hip too.”

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