With the 83rd Academy Awards coming up this evening and all the entertainment media and blogs going crazy with coverage and predictions and stats and publicity, I thought it might be fun to pull back and look a bit at the history of the awards and the Academy that bestows them, as well as how the Awards work. The Academy Awards are one of the oldest awards in cinema, and however right or wrong or self-congratulatory they are, they can be a great springboard for the study of Hollywood. I may rail against the Academy’s choices and wonder why the Awards get the prestige that they do, but truth be told, I have a big soft spot for the Academy and its history.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

First of all, who is this “Academy”, and what do they do besides hand out little gold statues every year? Today the Academy is a group of 6000 industry professionals, from all different areas of filmmaking ranging from studio executives to actors to writers to special effects technicians and everything else. Membership is by invitation only, which tends to give the group a bit of a snooty insider facade, and of course lends that Hollywood insider bias that the Oscars are often ridiculed for. But the Academy does a lot more that you might think – let’s take a look at how it got started.

mayer.jpgIn 1927, a dinner party at MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer’s house sparked the idea to start an institute that would benefit the entire film industry. By which they mostly meant the American film industry, and of course, the Academy has remained focused on Hollywood and American cinema, but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. From that initial conversation, which also involved actor Conrad Nagel and director Fred Niblo, the project soon brought heavy hitters Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks (who became the first president), Sid Grauman, Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, Irving Thalberg, and others on board. With both major studios like MGM, Paramount, and United Artists as well as exhibitors like Grauman and Lasky involved, the Academy had the talent and connections necessary to fulfill the role it created for itself.

The Academy quickly started publishing books of interest to industry professionals on technical and artistic topics like cinematography and sound recording – these first books were out as early as 1928. A program of film screenings was created, catering specifically to industry professionals – allowing them to see films in state of the art conditions prior to or concurrent with their theatrical release. By the 1930s, the Academy ran educational programs for non-industry people as well, teaching the US Signal Corps how to make their own training films, for example, and later acting as a liason between the government and the industry to make WWII training films. It was even involved in industry labor disputes during the 1920s and 1930s, though it explicitly moved away from such involvement in 1937, preferring to maintain its distance from labor conflict.

The Academy is probably best known today (aside from the Academy Awards) as an extensive resource both for industry professionals and outside researchers interested in the history of Hollywood film. Right from the start they started keeping detailed records of every film produced with full credits as well as directories of actors and their agents for the use of producers and filmmakers. Soon they were maintaining a full library of film-related material, from scripts and books to actual prints. As academic interest in film school and film studies grew in the 1960s, the Academy began scholarship and grant programs for film students, and in 1972 they opened their archives up to scholars and historians as well as indiustry professionals. This library and archive are invaluable for researchers even today, and the Academy is heavily involved in the preservation and restoration of classic Hollywood films. Expanding their reach beyond the industry, the Academy started putting on public lectures and later public screenings, often with the filmmakers in attendence. These events continue into the present, with events, exhibitions and screenings scheduled all the time.


While it’s easy to see the Academy as simply “those people who give out the Oscars,” the institution performs an important function for both filmmakers and film historians, providing symposiums and information for industry professionals and the public alike, access to an extensive film library and archive to researchers and cinematheques, and a valuable reminder of the rich heritage of American cinema. The Academy has preserved much of the history of Hollywood, and its founders were among the pioneers in recognizing the importance of film preservation and education.

The Academy Awards

Of course, the reason we’re talking about the Academy is the thing they’re most famous for – doling out awards every year. And the Awards were one of the first initiatives undertaken by the Academy, as a way of celebrating the work of their colleagues. One of the things the Academy is often criticized for is their Hollywood centrism, and that’s a valid objection, but the Academy’s whole purpose is to provide information and recognition for the American film industry, so it shouldn’t really be surprising.


The first Academy Awards of Merit were presented in 1929 for films released between August 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928. The practice of using an August-to-August eligibility calender would remain in effect until 1934, when the current January-to-December schedule was adopted. The first awards were not kept secret, but were announced several months in advance and presented at a private awards dinner to the winners. It was only the next year, however, that the awards were kept secret until the ceremony and the awards were radio broadcast live – the awards would only grow in prestige and public spectacle. By 1942 they had outgrown a banquet-style ceremony and were moved into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Now they are held in the Kodak Theatre, right next to the Chinese at the center of Hollywood.

The actual statue is officially known as the Academy Award of Merit, and was designed by production designer Cedric Gibbons. It depicts a naked gold man driving a sword into the reel of film upon which he stands. It’s unclear exactly how it got the nickname “Oscar” – one story is that when Academy librarian (and later Executive Director) Margaret Herrick first saw the statue, she remarked that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. The nickname was popularly used as early as 1934, and was officially adopted by the Academy in 1939.

There’s enough trivia about the Oscars to fill several books (and it has), but here are a few important dates.

1934 – awards for editing, score, song added
1934 – It Happened One Night sweeps Picture/Director/Actor/Actress/Screenplay
1936 – awards for supporting actor/actress added
1939 – award for special effects added
1941 – award for documentary added
1942 – Greer Garson’s speech lasts minutes, instigating speech limits
1947 – special award given for foreign language film – the Italian Shoeshine
1953 – first televised Oscars
1956 – award for foreign film added (special awards were given most years from 1947)
1959 – Ben-Hur sets 11-win record, unmatched until 1997
2001 – award for animated feature added

How the Awards Work

There are a lot of eligibility rules that are specific for each category, but the basic rule is that a film must have played a one-week commercial run at a Los Angeles theatre between January 1st and December 31st. A lot of times films will open for an Oscar qualifying run at one LA cinema (often the Laemmle Sunset 5), then not release any further until later the next year. Certain categories have further restrictions – for instance, foreign films have to have a certain percentage of the dialogue be non-English, and original scores can only contain a certain amount of pre-released music. These restrictions have led to odd non-nominations, like The Band’s Visit, which was deemed ineligible for foreign film because the Israeli and Egyptian characters resorted to English to understand each other, even though the film was totally produced by Israel.


For most categories, only the members of the relevant branch of the Academy may submit nominations – for example, only cinematographers can nominate in the Best Cinematography category, and only directors can nominate in the Best Director category. All members may nominate for Best Picture, however, and Best Foreign Film nominees are selected by a committee representing all branches. When it comes to final voting, all members may vote in every category, though in certain categories (the short film categories, for example) they must have seen all the nominated films to vote. It is possible, though rare, for ties to happen in the final vote. The only two times it has happened in major categories is 1932, when Fredric March and Wallace Beery tied for Best Actor (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Champ, respectively) and in 1967, when Barbra Streisand’s performance in Funny Girl tied Katharine Hepburn’s in The Lion in Winter.

As mentioned above, the awards tend to be very Hollywood-centric, making it surprising when a foreign film gets any nominations other than as a foreign film. In fact, many studios refused to support the 1948 awards when it became clear that the UK-produced Hamlet was likely to win the Best Picture award (and it did).

Recently, the Awards have come under media attention for their tendency to reward middle-of-the-road “Oscar-bait” pictures – lushly produced films with recognizable actors and inspirational plots, bonus points if the film is pseudo-independent or smaller-scale. This means that most of the films nominated tend to be limited release films that don’t play multiplexes or get a lot of publicity, which makes it harder to get the interest of the public, who often haven’t heard of the front-runners for the awards. On the other hand, critics and film buffs who follow independent and foreign cinema find the awards painfully safe, not reaching into the more interesting corners of lesser-known cinema. Still, it’s hard to appeal to every audience who pays attention to the Oscars – it’s probably best just to see the Awards as a fun and glitzy celebration of the movies rather than as a truly meaningful recognition for films that deserve it.

Further Reading

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences