Who gets invited to the Oscars?

If you're a nominee or Matt Damon, or both, you will be assured a ticket to the Oscars; for everyone else, luck and connections are more of a factor.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Over the past two years, most everyone has applauded the motion picture academy’s decision to add nearly 1,500 new industry professionals as a long-needed step toward diversifying the group’s ranks.

But the ever-increasing enrollment has created one small problem:

It’s almost impossible to get a ticket to the Oscars these days unless you’re willing to beg or engage in some serious wheeling and dealing.

The Oscars have always been the toughest ticket in town, and, as the academy has promised to keep adding new members in an effort to double the number of women and minorities in its ranks by 2020, the seating inventory will be squeezed even tighter with each passing year.


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“Unfortunately, it’s only going to get harder,” says an academy spokesperson who was not authorized to speak on the record about ticketing.

The reason is simple math. The Dolby Theatre, which has hosted the Oscars since 2002, seats 3,400 people on four levels and 20 opera boxes.

Oscar nominees — there are 200 this year — each receive a pair of tickets and can request an additional pair. Most do. Lead actor nominee Timothée Chalamet, for example, is bringing his parents and sister. “I’ve always been very lucky to have their support, so it only feels right to get to go with them,” the first-time nominee says.

“Lady Bird” writer-director Greta Gerwig will be attending with her parents, her partner, Noah Baumbach, and her childhood best friend.

After nominees account for about 800 tickets, blocks are reserved for the show’s broadcast network (ABC), the telecast’s sponsors, the production team, the accountants, the legal team, media (including The Times), academy museum donors and various dignitaries, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.


Movie studios receive a fair share too, proportional, in theory, to the number of nominations their movies earn. But in practice, executives from indie studios complain that the major studios — Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, Sony, Paramount, Universal — receive more than their fair share.

“Paramount has zero nominations, and they still get a lot of tickets,” griped a veteran publicist, adding that she had to scramble to find extra tickets for people connected to her films.

Presenters — and there are more than usual this year with the show’s producers pulling out the stops for the 90th ceremony — each get a pair of tickets as well.

“I always love going to the Oscars,” Nicole Kidman, a presenter this year, tells The Times. “It’s nice to be invited.”

Add it all up, and remove the spots that have obstructed views owing to the television cameras (seat fillers occupy those), and there’s only a few hundred seats left for a group totaling 8,298 people.

Snagging those tickets involves a process that will be familiar to anyone who has tried to score Dodgers playoff tickets in recent years. Members receive an email around the holidays, inviting them to enter a ticket lottery. And while the academy has embraced online voting, the lottery is conducted the old-fashioned way. Names are written on slips of paper and then pulled out of a drum.


“We don’t use a hat, but it’s close,” says an academy worker familiar with the process. “And there are lots of slips of paper.”

Should their name not be pulled, academy members say they move quickly past the first two stages of grief — denial and anger — and go directly into bargaining mode, calling studios, publicists and friends, faux and real. Dump your date. Ditch your spouse. Take me. Please!

Ticket-scrounging veterans emphasize the need to check egos and not get hung up over seat location. That’s because the seating chart follows a traditional hierarchy. Recognizable stars dominate the first few rows of the orchestra level, with big-category nominees placed near the aisle or the very front. Nominees in the crafts categories — production design, costumes, sound and the like — are seated farther back, typically resulting in a hike to the stage.

“A few years ago, the producers floated the idea that the stars should be seated a longer distance from the stage because it’d be more interesting to watch them make that minute-long walk,” notes a studio executive. “That proposal didn’t get much traction.”

Then there are three mezzanine levels, with the highest one, Mezzanine 3, containing the most seats. (“Oh, man, if you’re afraid of heights or have any kind of panic anxiety, that’s a scary place,” an academy employee says.)

But beggars can’t be choosers. The increase in membership, plus the move into the cozier Dolby (the Shrine Auditorium, a former home of the Oscars, seats 6,300), has crunched the inventory. If you want to go and you’re not nominated (or the designated Mayor of Hollywood as front-and-center Jack Nicholson was for many years), “you have to be OK with the thinner oxygen,” says a member who annually enters the lottery.

Of course, nominees and A-listers have their own set of concerns when it comes to the seating chart. Exes — spouses, lovers, partners, colleagues no longer on speaking terms — cannot be placed near each other. You won’t see a reunion of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the Oscars or Pitt and Jennifer Aniston or Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow or … well, you get the idea.


“There are a lot of ways this can go wrong,” an academy spokesperson says.

Perhaps that’s why the late Otto Spoerri held the job for nearly 25 years, dispensing tickets for the ceremony and the after-show Governors Ball and drawing up the seating chart until he retired in 2002. Spoerri is credited with creating most of the broadcast-friendly traditions still used today — spotlighting stars, placing nominees within the same category at a respectful distance from each other — and was handicapping races long before Oscar pundit sites existed so he could seat likely winners in a way that would get them to the stage in a timely manner.

“He was the most easygoing guy with enormous responsibility that I had ever met,” former academy President Sid Ganis told The Times upon Spoerri’s death in 2008. “Everybody in Hollywood and way beyond was at his doorstep in trying to get him to give up some of his treasure.”

That treasure, which has become even scarcer, is just another reason why it’s a thrill to be nominated.

“It is amazing,” Gerwig says. The filmmaker and actress has hosted her own annual Academy Awards party for years. This is the first time she’ll attend the actual ceremony, having wanted to wait until she was nominated.

“I’m excited to be sitting there and have the lights dim and hear the ‘Welcome to the 90th annual Academy Awards!’ ” she adds. “I am excited for the commercial breaks because what happens during the commercial breaks? And speeches always make me cry, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities for that.”

And rest assured, she’ll be seated in a place where the camera can capture each and every teardrop as it falls.


Times staff writer Justin Chang contributed to this story.

Twitter: @glennwhipp