When James Cameron’s Avatar won the Best Picture in the recent Golden Globe Awards, my younger daughter, Alex, a film aficionado who plans on pursuing a course in the performing arts, was deeply disappointed. I explained to her that the Golden Globe winners are the collective opinion of the Hollywood foreign press only and not the whole world. And if she is serious about a career in the entertainment industry, she should be smart enough to know that politics plays a big role in any competition.
To reiterate what I told Alex about the Golden Globe and the Hollywood foreign press, I’m writing about the Oscars and politics. Not politics in the context of government (although heaven knows how many times the Oscar Awards ceremony has been used as a platform for the personal politics of various entertainment personalities) but the power relationships between and among the Academy, its various branches, its Board of Governors, its members, the annual nominees and winners.
“Oscar” is the nickname for the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). According to its official website, it is made up of 15 branches, as follows: actors, directors, film editors, producers, sound, art directors, documentary, makeup artists and hairstylists, public relations, visual effects, cinematographers, executives, music, short films and feature animation, and writers. The Academy is governed by a Board of Governors which “consists of representatives from each of the 15 Academy branches. All branches are represented on the Board by three governors except the Makeup Artists & Hairstylists Branch, created in 2006, which has one representative.”
Current membership of the Academy is “over 6,000” but the members’ names are not made public. Membership is by invitation of the Board of Governors and is “limited to those who have achieved distinction in the arts and sciences of motion pictures. A candidate must be sponsored by at least two members of the branch for which the person may qualify. Each proposed member must first receive the endorsement of the branch’s executive committee before his/her name is submitted to the Board.”
Only the members of the Academy get to vote for the various categories in the Oscar Awards. From the outset, therefore, there is politics because very few and specific individuals have the power to determine who gets to vote.
It is not necessary to be an incumbent member to be nominated for an award, however. And how does an artist or film get nominated?
Nomination ballots are mailed to the Academy’s active members in late December and are due back to PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international accounting firm, in January.
Regular awards are presented for outstanding individual or collective film achievements in up to 25 categories. Members from each of the branches vote to determine the nominees in their respective categories – actors nominate actors, film editors nominated film editors, etc. However within the Animated Feature Film and Foreign Language Film categories, nominations are selected by vote of multi-branch screening committees.
All voting members are eligible to select the Best Picture nominees.
The ballots are tabulated by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an auditing firm, and the final results are kept secret until the envelopes are opened on awards night.
In short, the Oscar Awards isn’t like American Idol where the public can cast their votes, repeatedly sometimes, via SMS. It doesn’t matter whether a film was a box office success or a flop, it is irrelevant whether the production was big or small, it is immaterial whether the actors are big name stars or unknowns. At least, ideally, that’s how it ought to go. And that ideal goes hand in hand with the presumption that because the voting members of the Academy are well versed with their craft, they are in the best position to judge which is good, better, best and downright lousy.
In reality, however, and this is admitted by the Academy in its own website, it is an election campaign that “rivals, at least in Hollywood, the passions and sometimes the excesses” of the presidential elections. Studios, producers, directors, actors, musicians, cinematographers, art directors, writers… they all promote, campaign and market their films and themselves.
So, when trying to understand what “passions” and “excesses” mean, it is almost certain that they include every trick known among politicians – buying favorable print and broadcast media coverage, the “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of thing, and everything in between.
Studios and actors alike, and even directors, have their own publicists and media strategists. They spend for the campaign and the marketing because winning or losing in the Oscars can make or break careers. And bank accounts. When we consider the millions spent on a single film, an Oscar win is literally the best endorsement for the public to go and see it (and buy DVDs) even if only for curiosity’s sake – curiosity that can translate to millions to recover the investment and profit, if possible.
Needless to say, when the winners emerge on awards night and are declared the “best” in their respective categories, the public should be discerning enough to understand that “best” is relative to the opinions of the voting members of the Academy, their immunity from politics or their tendency to be swayed by external influence.
For all its glamor and entertainment value, the Oscar Awards Night is just a culmination of an election campaign that involves human beings who may be honorable and astute, or bribable and idiotic.