Feb 23, 2017

For Your Consideration: Politics and the Oscars

Ahead of the Oscars this Sunday, Dara McWade examines the politics of the Academy and how a winning "narrative" is created for a film.

Dara McWadeContributing Writer

They say that politics is just show business for ugly people. If that’s the case, then what does that say about the Oscars? The Oscars are politics for beautiful people. This is the simple truth: behind every nomination, every member of the Academy and with every little gold man that changes hands there lies ulterior political motives. The right film, actor or crewman may get the award they deserve every now and again, launching great careers of great work, but the Oscars exist as the ground floor for a marketing machine, as even an Oscar nomination in one of the bigger categories can boost a flop to a hit. How many films have you seen because “Academy Award Winner” was on the poster?

​The Oscars, the most glamorous event of the year, the Superbowl for film nerds, is watched by millions the world over. Year on year, thousands of pages of print are dedicated to predictions, analysis and criticism of both this year’s crop of awards and all previous awards. These awards are run by the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organisation created in 1927 by the Studio Heads to unionise from the top before the bottom had a chance to, scuppering any threat of an uprising from studio construction workers. The Academy today boasts an exclusive bunch, and while there are nearly 6,000 members across the different branches, inclusion is difficult, requiring sponsorship from two different members and a number of screen credits. While the exact roster of the Academy voting list is kept secret, an investigation by the LA Times in 2012 showed that, at that time, membership of the Academy was 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male. No wonder there has been such an outrage over the racial breakdown of the nominees over the past few years, with so little diversity in the organisation that decides the nominees and the winners.

​So how are Oscar winners actually decided? Well, there’s a system: instant run-off voting. The system will not be unfamiliar to voters in Irish elections – members don’t just vote on their favourite, they list their choices in order of preference, from most to least favourite. When the film with the least amount of first preferences is marked off, its second preferences are divided amongst the rest of the films and so on until one film has 50 per cent of the vote. Thus, the most divisive films get less attention than the big crowd-pleasers like The King’s Speech, and any film like it beats such polarising hits as Inception, 127 Hours and Black Swan.


​Studios will often spend millions on “for your consideration” campaigns and that’s before the nominations are even announced. After these nominations are revealed, at an event replete with film journalists (this year replaced by an online stream), the film trades become filled with ads, screeners are sent to every member of the academy and fancy parties are thrown for those eligible to vote. “Gifts”, while officially banned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are often given to members quietly. A notable example is Lés Miserables, whose producers sent out iPods with the soundtrack pre-installed in the run-up to the 2013 Oscars. A lot of Oscar campaigning seems to be about the loopholes – any way to get past the rules you, you take it.

​This year, the Academy has been trying to crack down on the more uncomfortable forms of campaigning, limiting the lavish parties populated by legions of stars, all eager for the career boost that these parties and an Oscar win, or nomination, can bring. These new rules ban Academy members from attending parties without a screening attached, but considering the events can be tangentially related to the screening, the Academy still lets publicists do their jobs and host parties where members can rub shoulders with the biggest stars of the day.

​Long-time award predictor Tom O’Neil noted in an interview with AdWeek that “no Best Picture nominee has ever gotten there without a campaign in 40 years”. You need to spend money on consultants, publicists and create the film’s “narrative” before you even get into the race.

The first step towards winning your film an Oscar is to show the film’s premiere at a festival. Toronto, Venice, Cannes or Sundance will do. Once you have created some buzz amongst the industry’s legions of film journalists, your film stars as well as the cinematography, script and directors can now be discussed for Oscar nominations. After the box office reveals the hits and misses from these initial predictions, the real conversation begins in earnest. In the run up to nominations, studios attempt to get as many members of the academy to see and consider their films as possible before they fill their nomination forms in early January. That’s the least hectic part of the schedule.

​When in the running for an Oscar, you’ll be able to catch a rare glimpse of the press-shy celebrity, ushered out by studios to fulfil this clause of their contracts – an increasingly crucial one for a film’s commercial success. Notable examples from recent years would be Eddie Redmayne, whose “narrative” was mostly one of discovery, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who went from hiding from paparazzi on yachts in France to appearing on every talk show on the schedule. It’s enough to make you feel for the outsiders forced to play the game, until you realise the pay-bump an Oscar win or nomination will give them. This can be up to $4 million for men and averages at $500,000 for women, so don’t feel so bad for the notoriously private Ruth Negga just yet.

​The Oscar campaigns may be a dirtier and more expensive game than most people realise, and the final awards show may not represent the blood, sweat and tears that go into a campaign. Even with the knowledge of the veritable bloodbath of publicity behind them, the Oscars are still always pretty fun to watch and we still cheer for the Irish nominees even if they have no chance against the budgetary power from larger studios. Like politics, the Oscars may be unfair, corrupt and ultimately a little disappointing. But if the Oscars are politics for beautiful people, at least they make an effort to make it look pretty.

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