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Dreams of an Oscar? Here's the rulebook...

The Academy has released new rules for next year's show … so how does it all work again, and what hope of local filmmakers getting to Hollywood's biggest stage? Sarah Rose explains.

Two months on from the monumental 96th awards show, which saw Barbie singing for the limelight and Christopher Nolan collecting his dues from Oppenheimer, the Academy has decided to do some seasonal weeding of its awards criteria.

New rules were announced at the end of April which now require applicants for the prestigious Best Picture award to meet new eligibility terms: one week in cinemas in a major US city from the January 1 to December 31, 2024.

But after the outrage that followed Barbie’s snubs from Oscars history, including Greta Gerwig from Best Director and Margot Robbie from Best Actress, as well as Lily Gladstone in Killers of a Flower Moon in the same category -- many viewers couldn’t help but wonder: how does the Oscars pick its winners?

The History

Heralded as a common ground for all aspects of the film-making discipline and encouraging collaborative innovation between industry professionals, the Oscars ceremony describes itself as a way to “represent the viewpoint of actual creators of the motion picture”. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, more colloquially known as ‘The Academy’, was formed in 1927 and has hosted an annual awards show since 1929 to celebrate excellence in all aspects of the film industry. Members range from actors, directors and costume designers, to marketing and public relations experts.

The road to Oscar glory is a long and complicated one. (Photo: Mirko Fabian, Pixabay)

Since its inception, the Academy has been no stranger to controversy -- most notably, representation of women and minority contributors to film and cinema history. John Wayne revealed the white underbelly of the awards show in 1973 after his violent outburst against Sacheen Littlefeather, who declined Best Actor on Marlon Brando’s behalf. 

Since then, there have been innumerable accusations of racism, bias and favouritism in the selection of the top Oscar awards by critics and the wider public, to which the Oscars now vows to address fairly and without agenda.

The Voting Process

For the majority of the awards presented on the big night, like Best Actress or Best Adapted Screenplay, members vote for one out of five total nominees. Typically these nominations are made and voted on by fellow members in the corresponding branch of industry;actors nominate actors, editors nominate editors and so on.

Of the 24 categories, Best Picture is the only one where all 10, 000-plus members of the Academy vote. It is also the only category decided through a preferential ballot, where members rank nominated films from 1-10 and the first to 50 per cent plus 1 of the total vote is declared the winner. 

For a more comprehensive explanation of the balloting process, check out this video produced by Variety.

But how do films even get nominated?

Liam Carter, program coordinator for the Melbourne International Film Festival, gives insight on a local level. 

“I know most festivals have some sort of panelling process just in order to whittle down the amount of films that they are considering," Carter says.

With around 4000 submissions received every year at MIFF, he says a diverse array of jurors is needed to make the final nominations.

“Some of [our] panellists range from film students, academics, people that have written books about film or have a PhD in film; we have filmmakers, we have directors, we have a film historian as well. So it's really widespread.”

Under the new rules, for a film to be nominated in the Oscar's Best Picture category they now must have a theatrical release in one of the six qualifying US metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, The Bay Area, Los Angeles County, City of New York, Chicago and Atlanta. After this initial qualifying run, the film must also play in theatres for one week in 10 of the 50 US markets; non-US markets include the top 15 international markets which can contribute to two of 10 total releases.

When it comes to winning an Oscar in the short film category, Carter says “it’s a bit of a different story.” 

“A lot of it boils down to connections, which I guess is still true in the features as well,” he says.

“In order for [short] films to qualify to even be nominated for the Oscars they have to win an award at an academy qualifying school, and then that award they win has to be academy credited.”

So how can budding filmmakers get their film off the ground, and into an arena as esteemed as the Oscars? Carter emphasises the importance of applying to film festivals such as MIFF or ones of more specific relevance.

“If you have a queer film, it’s probably best [to apply] to the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, just because you’re more likely to get an audience. Similarly, if it’s a documentary, definitely apply to the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival because there’s going to be a broader scope of documentaries and programming departments.”

Liam Burke, professor of film and media studies at Swinburne, says that when it comes to predicting what might happen at the Oscars, the general public can sometimes “be swayed by big names like Ryan Gosling” and forget the actual voting process.

Screen students, unsurprisingly, are real film fans so they have a better understanding of how the Oscars work than the general public,” he says, commenting on polling for student predictions conducted earlier this year.

“So, where the general public might be swayed by big names like Ryan Gosling or even Martin Scorsese, Screen Studies students seem to have a better understanding of who is likely to win.”

MIFF has only recently established a feature film competition, despite being one of the longest-running film festivals alongside Cannes and Berlin. Despite its relatively small status as a film festival, the event has seen alumni go on to win bigger and better things.

“The most immediate example that comes to mind is Taika Waititi,” he recalls.

“The real prize is prestige. It's a pretty astronomical achievement to get from this to a grander stage like the Oscars.”

And when you do get there, just remember to keep up to date with the latest rules. 

1 Comment

May 13

This was such a well researched and well written piece! As someone hoping to become a filmmaker this was a really insightful piece!


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