Whether you’re working in movies or a casual observer, the 2020 Academy Awards are the film industry’s most prestigious night of the year, singling out the very best on-screen talent and behind-the-scenes movie masterminds with its list of nominations.
But who actually votes for the shortlists and winners? Where does the name “Oscars” come from and what are the awards themselves made of?
Here’s our guide to all you need to know.
Who votes for the Oscars?
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) February 4, 2019
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – more commonly known as the Academy – is the world’s leading film organisation.
It is made up of 8,000 members – “accomplished men and women working in cinema” according to the Academy’s website – who vote for the awards.
The names of Academy members are a closely guarded secret but they are all film industry professionals, ranging from actors, directors and writers to producers and executives, and anyone nominated for or awarded an Oscar gets instant admission.
In recent years, efforts have been made to overhaul the membership and make it more diverse.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times, 76% of voters were men, 94% of them were white and they were on average 63 years old.
Following the #OscarsSoWhite outcry in 2016, in which industry stars including Will Smith boycotted the ceremony in protest at its nominations’ lack of diversity, the Academy announced plans to double its number of women and diverse members by 2020.
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In June 2016 the Academy invited 683 new members to join, 41% of which were people of colour and 46% of which were female.
Progress continued in 2017 when the Academy saw a record-breaking addition of 774 new members from 57 different countries.
How does Oscars voting work?
The Academy’s voting process is incredibly elaborate and complicated, but we’ve laid out the basics below…
1. Academy members must choose the nominees
Each member is only permitted to suggest nominees within their discipline. For example, writers nominate writers, actors nominate actors, costume designers nominate costume designers, etc. This is done using a preferential ballot with Academy members putting down up to five nominees per category in order. Everyone can vote for Best Picture.
Once the choices are in, accountancy firm PwC tallies the entries using the “alternative vote” system: this means all the first-choice ballots for each film are counted, and the movies/individuals that score above a certain threshold – also known as “the Magic Number” – secure an instant nomination. So if the “Magic Number” is set at 100 first-choice ballots and Roma gets 101, it becomes a nominee.
Next, the movie/individual securing the lowest number of first choice votes is eliminated from the process and their ballot’s second-choice get an additional vote. This process is repeated, pushing more nominees over the threshold until five are decided on.
The one exception to this process is the Best Picture category, for which there can be anywhere between five and ten nominees on the shortlist. This year eight films are up for the coveted prize.
If a movie garners a particularly high number of first-choice ballot votes – pushing it way beyond that aforementioned “Magic Number” – in order to avoid wasting votes on a popular film, a trickle-down process is introduced whereby their ballots’ second choices receive additional backing.
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2. Once the shortlists are announced for each category in January, Academy members must choose the winners
Members are sent a second ballot, and – this is much more straightforward – have to pick their favourite choice in each category, except for Best Picture which sticks to the preferential ballot system. Professionals from all disciplines can vote in all categories in this second round, although they’re discouraged from weighing in on disciplines they don’t know much about.
Why are they called the Oscars?
The origins of the nickname are disputed, but the most popular story is that when Academy librarian Margaret Herrick – who went on to become executive director – first saw the statuettes in 1931, she said they reminded her of her Uncle Oscar.
However, Bette Davis has also claimed to have coined the term, saying that she named the statue after her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson.
Columnist Sidney Skolsky also insisted that he first came up with the name in a 1934 article.
Whoever is responsible, the name caught on and the Academy made it official in 1939.
What are the Oscars statuettes made of?
The statuettes are made of solid bronze and plated in 24-karat gold.
Due to a metal shortage during the Second World War, the awards had to be made from painted plaster for three consecutive years.
After World War II, the Academy invited winners to swap in their plaster figures for gold-plated metal ones.
The 2020 Academy Awards will be held on Sunday 9th February 2020 and will be broadcast on Sky Cinema in the UK. You can access it with a Sky Cinema Pass with Now TV.