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How Are Oscar Nominees Chosen?

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The voting process that determines which films and filmmakers become Oscar nominees is a long and complicated undertaking that involves approximately 6000 voting members and hundreds of eligible films, actors, actresses, directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and more. To even be eligible for a nomination—let alone win that coveted gold statuette—involves a strict procedure governed by specific guidelines, all tied to the illustrious history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself. Here’s a little bit of insight into just how the nominations work, and how they’re chosen.

For all the glitz and glamour the Oscars conjure up, it's actually an accounting firm that makes it happen. The Oscar voting process is managed by an accounting team at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who have handled the duties of mailing out ballots and tabulating the results for more than 80 years. The firm mails the ballots of eligible nominees to members of the Academy in December to reflect the previous eligible year with a due date sometime in January of the next year, then tabulates the votes in a process that takes some 1700 hours.

BECOMING A PART OF THE CLUB

To become one of the approximately 6000 voting members of the Academy, you'd better be in the business. Aside from requiring that each member has "achieved distinction in the motion picture arts and sciences" in their respective fields, candidates must also meet quantitative standards. Writers, producers, and directors must have at least two screen credits to their names, while actors must have credited roles in at least three films. Candidates in the technical branches—like art directors or visual effects supervisors—must be active in their fields for a certain number of years (just how many varies based on the particular area of expertise).

If wannabe Academy members don't have the necessary credentials, they can also find two or more current members to officially sponsor them; their membership is then either approved or denied by an Academy committee and its Board of Governors. But the easiest route to Academy membership is simply to get nominated: Those who were nominated for or won an Oscar the previous year and are not currently a member are automatically considered.

Once inducted into the Academy, an individual can belong to only one branch. Ben Affleck, for example, can only be an Academy member as an actor and not as a director, and Brad Pitt can only belong to the Academy as an actor and not a producer.

Members vote on potential nominees for standard awards that are given to individuals or collective groups in up to 25 categories, yet members from each field may only vote to determine the nominees in their respective field. Directors only vote for Best Director nominees, editors only vote for Best Editing nominees, cinematographers only vote for Best Cinematography nominees, and actors only vote for nominees in each acting category. Yet all voting members are eligible to vote for potential Best Picture nominees.

THE NOMINATION FORMULA

The Academy has strict rules that determine what people or films can be nominated. In order to submit a film for nomination, a movie's producer or distributor must sign and submit an Official Screen Credits (OSC) form in early December. That's not just a full list of credits; you need proof that the film meets certain criteria: In order to be eligible, the film must be over 40 minutes in length; must be publicly screened for paid admission in Los Angeles County (with the name of a particular theater where it screened included); and must screen for a qualifying run of at least seven straight days. In addition, the film cannot have its premiere outside of a theatrical run—screening a film for the first time on television or the Internet, for example, renders the film ineligible.

Then, the ballots are sent out. Voting members are allowed to choose up to five nominees, ranked in order of preference. According to Entertainment Weekly, "The Academy instructs voters to 'follow their hearts' because the voting process doesn’t penalize for picking eccentric choices ... Also, listing the same person or film twice doesn’t help their cause—in fact, it actually diminishes the chance that the voter’s ballot will be counted at all."

Once members send back their ballots, PricewaterhouseCoopers begins the process of crunching the numbers. Specifically, they're looking for the magic number—the amount of votes in each category that automatically turns a potential nominee into an official nominee. To determine the magic number, PwC takes the total number of ballots received for a particular category and divides it by the total possible nominees plus one. An easy example is to take 600 potential ballots for the Best Actor category, divide that by six (five possible nominees plus one), thus making the magic number for the category 100 ballots to become an official nominee.

The counting—which is still done by hand—starts based on a voter’s first choice selection until someone reaches the magic number. Say Ryan Gosling reaches the magic number first for his performance in La La Land: the ballots that named him as a first choice are then all set aside, and there are now four spots left for the Best Actor category. The actor with the fewest first-place votes is automatically knocked out, and those ballots are redistributed based on the voters' second place choices (though the actors still in the running retain their calculated votes from the first round). The counting continues, and actors or different categories rack up redistributed votes until all five spots are filled. According to Entertainment Weekly, "if a ballot runs out of selections, that ballot is voided and is no longer in play, which is why it’s important for voters to list five different nominees." (The magic number drops as ballots are voided, by the way.) The process is ballooned for the Best Picture category, which can have up to 10 nominees and no less than five.

Deciding the winners is much simpler: After the nominees are decided, the whole Academy gets to vote on each category. Each member gets one vote per category—though they're discouraged from voting in categories they don't fully understand or categories in which they haven't seen all the nominated films—and the film or actor with the most votes wins. That process takes PwC just three days.

An earlier version of this post appeared in 2014.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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