One thing that Duncan Jones’ campaign to get Sam Rockwell an Oscar nomination has shed light on is the fact that incredibly deserving films and actors are often ignored by the academy, apparently for no good reason.
The reason commonly cited for this, often by those who have not received a nomination, is that the academy is made up of old men who are out of touch with popular opinion. While there is some truth to this assertion, and we will examine it in due course, the biggest problem for many deserving films is actually sticking in the minds of voters when the time comes round for nominations.
As a way of illustrating this point, let’s try an experiment: Imagine you are an academy member, and you’re asked to nominate the best five performances by an actor in a leading role during the last year.
Have you got a good selection? Is it a nice, wide range of films, including tiny independent films, and perhaps a foreign film or two for good measure? Were those performances better than any other during that twelve month period.
Oh, by the way, to make it a bit more like the Oscars the film needs to have been released in the LA County area for a seven day period, between the 1st September 2008 and 31st August 2009*. Are you certain the films you’re nominating all qualify?
Difficult to be sure, isn’t it?
In reality Oscar voters do receive a list of all the films eligible for nomination in a given year, but that’s no guarantee they’ll notice the more obscure films on the list, or even those that they hadn’t seen recently.
Is it any wonder, then, that companies spend fortunes reminding Oscar voters about their films?
So who exactly are those voters?
It’s true that many Academy members are old, although only members who are currently active, or who have been given lifetime membership are eligible to nominate, or vote in the Oscars. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the academy offer membership every year to a large number of people, many of whom certainly couldn’t be described as “˜old men’.
In the last few years, Jennifer Aniston, Ryan Gosling, J.J. Abrams, Michael Cera, Anne Hathaway and Danny Boyle have been invited to join the Academy. They may not all have joined (finding out who has is proving a little difficult), but they are a good indication of the sort of people asked to become Academy members, and evidence that it isn’t comprised exclusively of “˜old men’.
These members are divided into branches, depending upon the field for which they were invited. When it comes round to Oscar season awards are nominated by branch. The acting awards are nominated by members of the actors’ branch, directing by the director’s branch, cinematography awards by cinematographers, and so on and so forth. The Best Picture award is nominated by all academy members.
So if it’s not old men to blame for scuppering the chances of small films of grabbing an Oscar nom, and their memories can only be held partly responsible, why do good films get snubbed?
More than any other factor, the nomination procedure itself is the main reason that deserving films don’t receive the nod.
During the nominations each member is balloted for their top five choices in a category. These are then counted, and the total number of ballots is divided by the number of nominees plus one (eleven for best picture, six in all other categories). This is the minimum number of votes a film, actor, etc. needs to be nominated in a particular category. The film/director/etc. with the most votes
after this first round of counting is then nominated for the category.
Still following so far?
After this first round, any vote with the nominated film on it is discounted, and the process is started again. This continues until all five (or ten) nomination places are filled. The logic of this is that everyone’s voice is heard no more than once. The unintended consequence of this is that if two films are both popular with the same people, and one is selected, there is a chance that the slightly less popular film will not be nominated, even if it is more popular than other films that eventually are.
Confused? Let’s run through it with some real (although not entirely Oscar-worthy) films as an example.
For the purposes of this example, we imagine that there are two nominations available for the category.
Take three films, Transformers 2, GI Joe and Terminator Salvation. If Transformers 2 receives 3000 nominations, GI Joe receives 2500 and Terminator Salvation 2000. In an ordinary voting system Transformers 2 and GI Joe would receive the nominations. With the Oscar nomination system it’s not necessarily the case.
In the Oscar nomination process, if all of those votes came from different people, then it would still be Transformers 2 and GI Joe that receive the nomination, but if the votes from Terminator Salvation votes came from a new group of people while the votes for GI Joe** came from the same group as those for Transformers 2, then the nominations would go to Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation.
This is a fairly difficult concept to get your head round, so if you’re struggling, don’t worry***, but essentially it means that if two films are both popular amongst the same group of academy voters, no matter how many more votes the less popular one gets, it may still not be nominated for an Oscar.
This is the biggest reason a film will get “˜snubbed’ by the Academy. It’s not that it’s not popular or well respected; simply that a large number of those who voted for it also voted for a film that received a nomination in an earlier count.
The Academy isn’t a sinister cabal, plotting to reward the status quo at the expense of smaller films, or lesser known actors. It doesn’t conspire to reward the third film in a trilogy, or to ignore a film because it’s an adaptation of a comic book. Every year it makes mistakes, but hopefully this article has explained why those errors are made.
Duncan Jones has commented on the article, and pointed out a few facts to us that might be of interest to readers:
You might want to mention some numbers… approximately 6000 voting members and though there are a good number of younger voters added this year, a sizable chunk in the actors section are older.
Many voters would not see a film like Moon in the theatre so you have to pay for screeners, and due to piracy, the studio will not send out screeners unless they are digitally water-marked. The cost of doing a mail out of screeners to all voting members is somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000. This is a major reason why certain quality, smaller films never even have a chance
*The article was written in the middle of October 2009. The period for the Oscars is 1st January ““ 31st December during the previous year.
**At least a minimum of 501 of them.
***This article at IOFilm.co.uk explains the intricacies far better than I have here.