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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court. Thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the Constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so—either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Until her passing at the age of 87 on September 18, 2020, the oldest justice on the current U.S. Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

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