How Are Oscar Nominees Chosen?

Olivia Colman, Mahershala Ali, and Regina King celebrate their Oscar wins at the 91st Annual Academy Awards in 2019.
Olivia Colman, Mahershala Ali, and Regina King celebrate their Oscar wins at the 91st Annual Academy Awards in 2019.
Dan MacMedan/Getty Images

The voting process that determines which movies and moviemakers become Oscar nominees is a long and complicated undertaking that involves more than 8000 voting members and hundreds of eligible films, actors, actresses, directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and more. To even be eligible for a nomination—let alone win that coveted gold statuette—involves a strict procedure governed by specific guidelines, all tied to the illustrious history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself. Here’s a little bit of insight into just how the nominations work, and how they’re chosen.

For all the glitz and glamour the Oscars conjure up, it's actually an accounting firm that makes it happen. The Oscar voting process is managed by an accounting team at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who have handled the duties of mailing out ballots and tabulating the results for more than 80 years. The firm mails the ballots of eligible nominees to members of the Academy in December to reflect the previous eligible year with a due date sometime in January of the next year, then tabulates the votes in a process that takes some 1700 hours.

Becoming a part of the club

To become one of the approximately 8000 voting members of the Academy, you'd better be in the business. Aside from requiring that each member has "achieved distinction in the motion picture arts and sciences" in their respective fields, candidates must also meet quantitative standards. Writers, producers, and directors must have at least two screen credits to their names, while actors must have scripted roles in at least three films. Candidates in the technical branches—like art directors or visual effects supervisors—must be active in their fields for a certain number of years (just how many varies based on the particular area of expertise).

If wannabe Academy members don't have the necessary credentials, they can also find two or more current members to officially sponsor them; their membership is then either approved or denied by an Academy committee and its Board of Governors. But the easiest route to Academy membership is simply to get nominated: Those who were nominated for or won an Oscar the previous year and are not currently a member are automatically considered.

Once inducted into the Academy, an individual can belong to only one branch. Ben Affleck, for example, can only be an Academy member as an actor and not as a director, and Brad Pitt can only belong to the Academy as an actor and not a producer.

Members vote on potential nominees for standard awards that are given to individuals or collective groups in up to 25 categories, yet members from each field may only vote to determine the nominees in their respective field. Directors only vote for Best Director nominees, editors only vote for Best Editing nominees, cinematographers only vote for Best Cinematography nominees, and actors only vote for nominees in each acting category. Yet all voting members are eligible to vote for potential Best Picture nominees.

The nomination formula

The Academy has strict rules that determine what people or films can be nominated. In order to submit a film for nomination, a movie's producer or distributor must sign and submit an Official Screen Credits (OSC) form in early December. That's not just a full list of credits; you need proof that the film meets certain criteria: In order to be eligible, the film must be over 40 minutes in length; must be publicly screened for paid admission in Los Angeles County (with the name of a particular theater where it screened included); and must screen for a qualifying run of at least seven straight days. In addition, the film cannot have its premiere outside of a theatrical run—screening a film for the first time on television or the Internet, for example, renders the film ineligible.

Then, the ballots are sent out. Voting members are allowed to choose up to five nominees, ranked in order of preference. According to Entertainment Weekly, "The Academy instructs voters to 'follow their hearts' because the voting process doesn’t penalize for picking eccentric choices ... Also, listing the same person or film twice doesn’t help their cause—in fact, it actually diminishes the chance that the voter’s ballot will be counted at all."

Once members send back their ballots, PricewaterhouseCoopers begins the process of crunching the numbers. Specifically, they're looking for the magic number—the amount of votes in each category that automatically turns a potential nominee into an official nominee. To determine the magic number, PwC takes the total number of ballots received for a particular category and divides it by the total possible nominees plus one. An easy example is to take 600 potential ballots for the Best Actor category, divide that by six (five possible nominees plus one), thus making the magic number for the category 100 ballots to become an official nominee.

The counting—which is still done by hand—starts based on a voter’s first choice selection until someone reaches the magic number. Say Adam Driver reaches the magic number first for his performance in Marriage Story: the ballots that named him as a first choice are then all set aside, and there are now four spots left for the Best Actor category. The actor with the fewest first-place votes is automatically knocked out, and those ballots are redistributed based on the voters' second place choices (though the actors still in the running retain their calculated votes from the first round). The counting continues, and actors or different categories rack up redistributed votes until all five spots are filled. According to Entertainment Weekly, "if a ballot runs out of selections, that ballot is voided and is no longer in play, which is why it’s important for voters to list five different nominees." (The magic number drops as ballots are voided, by the way.) The process is ballooned for the Best Picture category, which can have up to 10 nominees and no less than five.

Deciding the winners is much simpler: After the nominees are decided, the whole Academy gets to vote on each category. Each member gets one vote per category—though they're discouraged from voting in categories they don't fully understand or categories in which they haven't seen all the nominated films—and the film or actor with the most votes wins. That process takes PwC just three days.

An earlier version of this post appeared in 2014.

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Each December, Christians throw a collective birthday bash to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’s arrival on Earth. But without a birth certificate—or any other official record of his actual birthdate—in existence, December 25 seems like an arbitrary day for all our Christmas traditions. So how did early observers choose it?

When Was Jesus Really Born?

Since the Bible doesn’t name a month or even a season for Jesus’s birth, historians have relied on other context clues to estimate when it occurred. Shepherds tend sheep in the Nativity story, which people often cite as evidence that Jesus was more likely born during the spring. Others argue that Israel’s mild winter temperatures allow sheep to graze even in December. According to Slate, it’s also possible that sheep set aside for religious sacrifices may have been given free rein, frigid night or not.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Sebastiano Conca, 1720.J. Paul Getty Museum // Public Domain

One clue pointing specifically to December 25 comes from the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who approached old age without having given birth to any children. One day, her husband, a priest named Zacharias, was burning incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him with good news: Elizabeth would bear a son. Early Christians guessed that Zacharias was probably in the temple for Yom Kippur, which they believed always took place on September 24 (it actually shifts year to year based on the Jewish lunisolar calendar). Nine months after September 24 is June 24, so they chose that as the birthdate—and feast day—of Elizabeth and Zacharias’s son, John the Baptist. When Gabriel later visited Mary to let her know that she’d bear a son, too, he mentioned that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. That means Jesus would’ve been conceived in late March, and born in late December—the night of December 24, to be exact, or the early hours of December 25.

Another theory suggests that Christians arrived at December 25 based on an ancient Jewish idea that prophets die on their birthday. During the 3rd century CE, theologists like Tertullian and Hippolytus dated Jesus’s crucifixion to March 25, since it happened around Passover. But to Sextus Julius Africanus, it was less about when Jesus was born and more about when he first came to Earth; in other words, he believed Jesus’s death and conception coincided on March 25, and thus his birth occurred on December 25 [PDF].

The Early History of Christmas

Even if Zacharias was in the temple on September 24, Gabriel did visit Mary exactly six months later, and Jesus was born right on his due date, it’s still possible that we celebrate Christmas on December 25 for a different reason altogether.

While 3rd-century Christians were busy worshiping the Son of God, some of their pagan counterparts were busy worshiping the Sun God. In the 270s, Roman emperor Aurelian popularized the cult of Sol Invictus, or “The Unconquered Sun,” whose feast day was celebrated on December 25. According to John Carroll University history professor Joseph F. Kelly, other Romans revered a Persian god, Mithra, whose feast day also may have fallen on December 25. There was also Saturnalia, an annual Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 23. In short, many ancient Romans were well-accustomed to celebrating something in late December by the time Christianity entered the mainstream.

A painting of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine Callet, 1783.Themadchopper, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That happened during Constantine’s rule over Rome in the early 4th century. In 313, Constantine and his fellow ruler Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which basically legalized Christianity and condemned the ongoing persecution of anyone who practiced it. Constantine was a devout Christian himself, and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the religion throughout the empire. The first known record of December 25 as Jesus’s official birthday is from 336, the year before Constantine died. Because it’s mentioned in a volume containing other important religious dates, some have assumed that a celebration probably occurred on that day, and 336 is often cited as the first known “Christmas.”

Whether Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know that the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn't come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, Christian bishops were holding Christmas Mass all over Rome, and pagan festivals soon fell out of fashion. The fact that Christmas essentially replaced those earlier December traditions could be a coincidence, but some believe it was by design: Since Romans were already primed for parties on December 25, the Church could’ve been trying to co-opt a built-in subscriber base.

In summary, the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate—so feel free to play Christmas music whenever you want.

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