Calendar Goes To The Oscars : How It All Works

After months of Academy Award campaigning, parties, receptions, awards, more awards and even more awards, it finally comes down to opening 23 sealed envelopes Monday night on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But the process leading to Oscar night is a structured, complicated one.

It involves dozens of film distribution companies, 12 different branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and more than 200 eligible movies. Finally, of course, there's the casting of ballots by the 4,600 academy members with voting status (out of the full membership of 5,500, which includes associate members and those who have retirement status).

There is no official date when Hollywood begins thinking about the Oscars; some people never seem to stop. Insiders say strategies for winning an Oscar are often initiated as much as a year or more before a movie comes out--at the time when a film's distributor makes the decision to schedule the opening during the prestige movie season of late autumn through Christmas. That's the time when most Oscar-winning best pictures open in theaters, and the timing, in itself, is industry shorthand that says: "Oscar material."

But if one can pinpoint the official start of the current Oscar season, it was Dec. 1, according to the film academy's executive director Bruce Davis. That was the deadline all film companies faced to submit "screen credits forms" for any film they wished to be considered for Oscars. The only other notable requirement is that all feature-length narrative films must have at least a seven-day run in a commercial theater anywhere in Los Angeles County beginning by Dec. 31.

By early January, the academy's board of governors had declared that 238 feature-length movies had met those requirements for 18 of the 23 awards. The nominations for five others--documentary features and shorts, live-action short films and animated short films, and foreign language films--are made by special committees, following separate rules.

On Jan. 15, nomination ballots were mailed to academy voters.

For the best picture category, all voting members may make nominations. But in the other categories, only one's peers are eligible to nominate. In other words, only members of the directors branch may nominate directors, only actors can nominate actors and only members of the music branch can make song and scoring nominations.

The voters are asked to select no more than five nominations for each category, and write them in descending order of preference. In the categories of makeup, sound effects editing and visual effects, only three nominations are made.

This order-of-preference method allows the academy's long-standing accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, to use a "preferential" system of counting votes, one that the academy believes gives more films and individuals a chance to be nominated.

In the four acting categories, each of 1,200 members of the actors branch make their own individual determination about who is a leading player versus who is a supporting player. No player can be nominated more than once in a single category, and no one can be nominated for the same role in two categories.

But the rules say a player can be nominated in both the leading and supporting categories for roles in different movies. The current example of this is Al Pacino, nominated for best actor in "Scent of a Woman" and supporting actor in "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Nomination ballots were due on Feb. 3, and the academy announced the Oscar contenders on Feb. 17.

Following the nominations, the academy schedules screenings of all nominated works. All academy voters were mailed ballots around March 10, and all members were eligible to cast votes in all categories except for the entries in the documentary features and short films categories, foreign language categories and in animated shorts and live action shorts. In those five instances, voting occurs only after a member has attended special screenings or can prove they have seen all the nominees.

The academy's board of governors admonishes members to be wary of "advertisements, promotional gifts, dinner invitations and other lobbying tactics" that may be used to influence votes.

"Though the crude solicitations that occasionally surfaced in earlier years seem to be a thing of the past, we would ask each academy member to be on guard."

The final ballots were due at Price Waterhouse offices last Tuesday. Tabulating the ballots is handled in strict secrecy, and the outcome will only be known to two members of the accounting firm. The names of the nominees who receive at least a plurality of votes will be placed in envelopes and not opened until Monday night.

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