We talk about it as if it were a storm front, or a rock band, some highly concentrated force of nature given to predictable patterns of behavior offset by sudden inexplicable shifts in direction and secret internal activity -- this year, small films are hot, comedies are not. We talk about it as if it were a high-powered cabal, men and women who look like Jack Nicholson and meet regularly somewhere in a room full of red-vinyl banquettes to talk paybacks -- take that Miramax, it's your year, Bill. We talk about it as if it were an Orwellian form of government -- monolithic and omnipresent -- the State, the Firm, the Academy.

We talk about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as if it were everything but what it is: a group of 6,570 almost bizarrely disparate souls brought into the fold through one of 14 branches -- actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, editors, executives, sound technicians, cinematographers, even public relations reps -- who usually don't see a whole lot of one another outside of their numerous movie screenings throughout the year. Each branch determines the Oscar nominees for its area of expertise (the entire membership votes for best picture), but members vote, as they do for the actual awards, by mail. No smoke-filled rooms, no secret handshakes.

Most don't even go to the Oscars: The Kodak Theatre has 3,400 seats, and half of those are filled with presenters, nominees and their guests. The remaining seats are given away by lottery to those voting academy members who want to go (many of them actually don't).

Yes, they are members of an elite club, perhaps the most second-guessed institution in America, but there is no mysterious lapel pin. Instead, for their $250 in annual dues, members get an ID card, a newsletter, free screenings year 'round, special access to the academy library and a fair number of industry receptions.

Membership is for life, as long as you pay your dues and don't violate any of the rules, like actor Carmine Caridi did this year when he passed along his screener tapes and subsequently got the boot. (Academy officials acknowledge that other members have been expelled in the past, most for selling their Oscar tickets, but no numbers are available.)

Those who choose not to be as active in the academy can ask to have their status changed to "retired." This has nothing to do with whether they retire from their actual jobs. "Retired" members pay no annual fee and are no longer eligible to vote for the Oscars or board of governors. They are allowed only to attend screenings.

There are several paths to academy membership. First you must be asked to join -- those nominated for an Oscar are automatically invited; everyone else must wait for an invitation from a standing member.

Everyone must fill out an application form and find two sponsors from the appropriate branch. The board of governors, 42 members representing each of the branches, reviews a candidate's work to determine if he or she has the necessary hours in the field and then votes -- majority wins.

Thus academy membership grows every year, from 230 members in 1927 to the current 6,570, of whom 767 are "retired." But there is no Faustian guarantee of career longevity; many members have suffered lean years after joining.

"It's odd, but once you're presented with the invitation, there's no formal duties," says Doug Greenfield, an engineering manager at Dolby Laboratories and member of the sound branch. "If you just want to go to the activities, there's a way to do that."

Greenfield joined the academy through a special membership clause that allows for meritorious achievement to take the place of extensive feature film work. As a field sound engineer, Greenfield had actually first served on the academy's Theater Standards Committee, one of the few academy committees that allows nonmembers. His boss at the time, also on the committee and an academy member, eventually asked Greenfield to join the academy. After a vote by the sound branch executive committee, he was notified of his new membership by mail.

"I framed that letter and sent it to my mom," he says. "I was thrilled and honored."

Greenfield is now chairman of the Theater Standards Committee, serves on the Sci-Tech Awards Committee (determining who receives awards of technical merit) and the Main Building Committee, and has served two terms on the board of governors. Although he considers himself very involved in the academy, he misses more of the activities than he makes.

"If you wanted to go to every academy event, it would be a full-time job," Greenfield says.

Membership has its privileges

For many members, the screenings (sometimes as many as five or six in a single weekend) are the biggest benefit of being in the club.

"It's not a place for schmoozing or networking," says screenwriter Jon Boorstin, who joined in 1975 after his short documentary "Exploratorium" was nominated for an Oscar. "As a way to see movies, it's terrific. But that's been its primary function in my life."

Boorstin, who has also written, directed and produced narrative films, remains in the documentary branch, since academy rules state that members must stay in the branch they originally joined. He serves on the foreign language film selection committee, whose members must see at least 25 of the foreign films eligible for their nominations to count.

"It's like seeing a foreign language film festival," Boorstin says. "You get a real cross-section of the world and their filmmaking styles." However, he adds, "The most eye-opening films don't get nominated. There's an aversion to anything political and a preference for more traditional filmmaking."