Getty Images | Arturo Holmes

WE’RE NOT POINTING FINGERS, but far too many people peg their perceptions of a film’s quality directly to its success at the Oscars. That’s why seemingly every year, the awards ceremony is surrounded by controversy as viewers expect their opinions to be validated with official recognition. Some years an inattention to foreign films draws the ire of social media hordes, in others it’s the supposed snubbing of a universally loved on-screen talent—Margot Robbie is the posterchild of this category this year—but Oscar nominees and winners are always dutifully studied, opined on and criticised.

The Oscars aren’t exactly the only awards ceremony in the film industry—it’s called awards season for a reason—so why do we view them as the paragons of filmic judgement? It’s partially due to the historic prestige associated with the ceremony, which was first held in 1929, and because as far as industry organisations go, none hold more sway in influencing perceptions of films than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Oscars are open to criticism, that’s part of what makes them so entertaining, but come on, just because a film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture doesn’t mean it holds no value. Moreover, despite many people holding passionate views on who deserves to win an Oscar, far fewer actually understand how those nominees and winners are decided. We’re breaking down the voting process for the Oscars, so that you can be knowledgeable in your scathing criticism of this year’s snubs.

Who votes for the Oscars?

The Oscars are called the Academy Awards because they’re voted on by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While this is an exclusive group, it’s not as small as you might think. The Academy currently has more than 10,500 members—not exactly a clandestine cabal of all-powerful cinephiles—who vote on Oscar winners and nominees. The members of the Academy are, first and foremost, A-list actors and big-name directors, but they’re also screenwriters, sound technicians, costume designers and pretty much anyone who’s worked on a Hollywood film. In Oscar voting, tinseltown’s biggest icons are held in the same esteem as a hairstylist—no offence to hairstylists.

How are Oscar winners and nominees decided?

Academy membership is broken down into 17 different branches, with each comprising a distinct profession such as writer, actor, director and cinematographer. Each branch decides on the nominees for the Oscar categories that apply to their branch. For example, the acting branch decides the nominees for Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress—so Margot Robbie really only has her peers to blame for her snub. The only exception to this rule is the Best Picture category. All Academy members are able to vote on the nominees for Best Picture.

To decide the winners of each Oscar category, all branches vote in all categories. So a hairstylist—again, apologies for picking on the hairstylists—have as much influence as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. In short, the entire academy votes on the Oscar winners, but the individual branches decide who gets nominated.

Why do people ‘campaign’ for an Oscar?

In the lead up to awards season, you’ll likely hear that an actor, actress, director or other significant figure is on the ‘campaign trail’ like they’re some political candidate. This is because the Oscars are actually very similar to politics, and winning requires campaigning. This typically involves drawing attention to a film, whether it’s through excessive red carpet appearances, frequent interviews or generally making headlines. Nominees want there to be as much attention on their work as possible so they can influence the voting of Academy members—or at least ensure that everyone has seen their film.

How can you become an Oscars voter?

So you want to take your scrutiny one step further than internet lamentations and transition into a position of tangible influence? There are a few methods of doing so, but most are out of reach for the average person. Anyone can become a member of the Academy, so long as they have some film credits to their name and have “demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures”. To become a member of the Academy, you need to be sponsored by two existing members, or if you’re nominated for an Academy award, you automatically become a member. To learn more about membership and start the application process, click here. And good luck.

Why does any of this matter?

We’ve returned to our initial question: who cares? The Oscars are not an indisputable measure of quality, nor should they be treated like one, as there’s been plenty of questionable winners and nominees in the past. Outside of influencing the perceptions of the general public, the Oscars play an important role in the Hollywood system.

Hollywood is a business, and winning an Oscar is like winning employee of the month (just a little more public facing). It’s a sign of recognition and can be used as leverage at a later date. An actor who has won an Oscar is instantly more desirable than one who hasn’t, and that could be decisive in the battle for a role. Likewise, recognition from the Academy can also lend greater financial support to a director’s future projects, as they have proven success. In the age of streaming, the Oscars have become even more important because by slapping ‘Oscar nominee’ next to its name, a film can easily demand a higher license fee from a streaming service. But perhaps above all, the Oscars keep us regular folk entertained with debates over who should’ve won and who was wearing the best outfit.

Stay tuned for the 2024 Oscars, which will be held on March 11 at the Dolby® Theatre at Ovation Hollywood.

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