Debunking common Oscars myths

Wesley Stenzel, Arts & Entertainment Editor

The 92nd Academy Awards ceremony takes place this Sunday, and will likely follow in the grand Oscars tradition of being the most significant and controversial night of the year for the film industry. There are countless opinions surrounding the Oscars, and many people misunderstand and discredit the Academy for numerous reasons. To fully understand the Academy Awards, we must debunk numerous popular Oscars myths.

Myth No. 1: Oscars don’t matter

This statement is only true if you think movies don’t matter, either. It is true that the Oscars don’t endow films with greatness — rather, they recognize exceptional qualities in movies and communicate their exceptionalism to the wider movie-going population.

Winning or losing an Academy Award doesn’t make a movie any better or worse, but it does tell the public that a lesser-known film is worth watching.

The Academy’s ability to boost the profile of smaller films is increasingly important in an era when franchises and remakes dominate the box office. Oscars can cement the legacies of great movies for future generations to look back on and shape the narrative of film history.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Oscars, however, is its ability to spark immediate change in the film industry. When an artist receives an Academy Award, their credibility and marketability both skyrocket. Filmmakers, actors, and artisans suddenly become eligible for increased creative control, higher pay, and more Hollywood power with an Oscar under their belt.

This is why recognizing a diverse selection of artists is so crucial: when the Academy rewards a mix of races, genders, sexual orientations, and nationalities, the power dynamic in Hollywood shifts away from the predominantly white male establishment, and the landscape of the film industry becomes richer and more reflective of our multifaceted world.

Myth No. 2: Every Academy member nominates people in every category

This is surprisingly untrue: to select nominees, the Academy is broken into different branches for each category. Only directors vote for directors, only actors vote for actors, and so forth. Sound designers have no input on the acting nominees, and vice versa.

So when the entire Academy came under criticism for nominating five male directors and only one actor of color, the Internet’s outrage was slightly misplaced — only the directors’ and actors’ branches deserve criticism for their lack of diversity, because none of the other branches had any input on these categories. However, it’s safe to say that every branch of the Academy should diversify in order to give more power to underrepresented voices.

However, Best Picture nominees are chosen by every branch. Additionally, once the list of nominees is selected, everyone in the Academy can vote for a winner in every category. The nominees are chosen by experts in each category, and the winners are chosen by everyone.

Myth No. 3: Tallying Best Picture votes is simple

The Best Picture category is perhaps the most confusing aspect of Oscar voting. In all other categories, the nominee with the most votes wins. Best Picture is different — it utilizes a convoluted ranked-choice system in which every voter lists their choices in order of preference. This year, there are nine Best Picture nominees, so each voter will list their picks from one to nine.

This is where it becomes confusing: the movie with the smallest number of first-choice votes (let’s say “Ford v Ferrari”) is eliminated from contention, and is crossed out from every ballot.

Now, all the ballots that voted for “Ford v Ferrari” move to their second choice — let’s say they all had “Joker” as their second pick. This means that all of the “Ford v Ferrari” votes now go to “Joker,” thus increasing the latter film’s numbers substantially.

This process continues until there are only two movies left. As a result, the movie with the most first-place votes can easily lose if it doesn’t also have a lot of second- and third-place votes.

Myth No. 4: The Oscars award the best artists of the year

First of all, there’s no such thing as an objective “best” anything of the year. Art is inherently subjective. But even if there was some metric to determine the objectively best work of a given year, the Academy still wouldn’t choose it every time. Oscar votes are affected by numerous factors that are separate from actual artistry in a particular year.

One of the largest factors is the “career Oscar.” Voters often choose winners that weren’t necessarily the best actor, director, or writer in a particular year, but instead vote for someone who has had an outstanding overall career, or was overlooked for a previous performance.

This phenomenon happens frequently in the Supporting Actor and Actress categories. For example, actors like J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney have won Oscars for supporting roles in years where they may not have given the best performance of the year, but voters were influenced by an overwhelming narrative that these veteran actors should have an Oscar by now.

The Academy also favors specific types of movies. Oscars tend to go to biographies, historical dramas, and movies about Hollywood. Likewise, the old guard of Academy voters seems somewhat biased against foreign films and movies from streaming platforms like Netflix.

Campaigns also influence Oscar voting, particularly in the acting categories. Some artists utilize promotional events to their advantage.

For example, Brad Pitt might have a better shot at winning an Oscar this year because he charmed a number of Academy voters that live in Santa Barbara and attended his SBIFF event. The best campaigners often win the top awards.

Keep all this in mind as you make your predictions for Sunday night’s awards. Anything could happen, but it’s pretty unlikely that anything remarkably unexpected will win the top prizes.