Oscars 2011 Update: The Voting Academy

A lot of people don’t quite know just how voting happens in the Academy.

To most people, it’s just this nebulous body that gets ballots and votes and then the ballots are tallied by this secret firm that shows up on Oscar night with the envelopes in briefcases handcuffed to their wrists. No one ever really explains just what “the Academy” signifies, and what the actual numbers are in terms of who is voting.

So I figured, why don’t I do it?

As of this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has 5,515 voting members. How do I know this? I looked it up on their website. An actual list of just who is in those categories is not provided, but we have numbers, and that’s really what we care about.

Those 5,515 members (more get added each year. I think 134 people were invited last year) are broken down into these groups:

  • Actors Branch: 1,183 members
  • Art Directors Branch: 364 members
  • Cinematographers Branch: 202 members
  • Directors Branch: 367 members
  • Documentary Branch: 157 members
  • Executives Branch: 442 members
  • Film Editors Branch: 220 members
  • Makup Artists and Hairstylists Branch: 118 members
  • Music Branch: 236 members
  • Producers Branch: 446 members
  • Public Relations Branch: 366 members
  • Short Films and Feature Animation Branch: 343 members
  • Sound Branch: 407 members
  • Visual Effects Branch: 289 members
  • Writers Branch: 375 members

There are more sound people than writers. I feel that says a lot about the state of the industry.

There are, however, more writers than directors. And that feels nice.

Some things that I immediately notice (aside from the obvious — the actors have the most say. They tell you that one every Oscar season) about these numbers:

The music branch has only 236 members. So 236 members (assuming all of them are there. And that assumption is the same as saying everyone votes each November) are the ones deciding what the song nominations are. My problem with that is the assumption that they’re the only ones that can decide what a good song is. Which would be like saying, “Only the critics can decide what a good film is and not the public.”

But I digress…

So what this means is — tomorrow, actually. I’m gonna put up an article about it — ballots will be mailed, and, by, I think it’s the 13th or something of January, Academy members will get to vote on what to nominate. I’ll break down how that works tomorrow (but basically — actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, etc. Everyone gets to vote on Best Picture). And then things get nominated, and then the ballots are out, and everyone votes on everything. Or at least, has the ability to do so. Whether they mail back the ballots is their business.

So that’s who the Academy is. 5,515 members. Mostly actors. These are the people deciding who to nominate (and then who wins).

What’s actually important about that number is — all these other awards you’ve been seeing so far? Critics circles, Hollywood Foreign Press, whatever — all these groups are only a couple of hundred people, at most. The big stuff hasn’t even happened yet. The guilds have thousand and thousands of members. SAG is like 140,000 people or something.

That’s where people make the most mistakes come Oscar time. They think that just because a film has hit (or missed) in all the critics circles means it’s out of the race. What a film really needs is a strong showing at SAG (which, we have the nominations. And even those are only 80% accurate, because the sample size of the Academy list of actors is much smaller and more concentrated, so you’ll see it skew much differently come the Oscars. Usually it’s older and more popular. Like, you know how Armie Hammer got the SAG nomination? I’d lay odds that you’re more likely to see Ben Kingsley’s name on that nominations list come nominations morning than you are Armie Hammer’s. Because that’s how it works), all the other guilds, and, to some extent, BAFTA. Because if the Costumers Guild votes for certain films — those are the same people voting for who gets nominated. It doesn’t matter that everyone else raved about this one film, it’s what the professionals in that field think. (And then, of course, once nominations are out, yeah, then it’s fair game and everything’s back in play.)

Just something to think about, since we’re still idling on this Oscar season. Stuff doesn’t rev up until after the new year.

(Note: I’m coming up with different figures. Apparently over 6,000 people are in AMPAS, yet the site’s breakdown of figures only comes up to 5,515. Apparently this is so secretive we can’t know who’s in the group.)

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