Why Were the Oscars Created?

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In the late 1920s, MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer (above) got antsy when studio construction unions began forming in Hollywood. These guilds came with expensive labor agreements, which were proving cost-prohibitive for the film studio. He was also annoyed because he wanted some MGM set designers to build his Santa Monica beach house, but because of the recently signed union contracts, his “outside project” would be very expensive. Mayer got around that by hiring just a few of the studio's skilled artisans and outsourcing the cheap labor. But the situation was an eyeopener for Mayer, who figured soon Hollywood's directors, actors, and writers would unionize, too.

As a result, Mayer and a couple of buddies created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In effect, this organization would hopefully stave off any more unionization efforts in Hollywood. Shortly after this meeting, Mayer convened with 36 actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers in a fancy hotel and told them that if they signed on as “Academy members,” working conditions would improve and they’d be a part of an elite organization. Not wanting to miss out on such an opportunity, the Hollywood folks — including new president Douglas Fairbanks and the only female, Mary Pickford — signed on.

The doling out of Awards, which most of the world will celebrate on TV tonight, were actually an afterthought of this newly organized union. While many industry folk committed to the AMPAS, they were seeing few events planned to legitimize them or showcase Hollywood’s talent. Enter the first awards ceremony in 1929, honoring films released from August 1, 1927 through July 31, 1928. In the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 250 well-dressed people dined on fish and chicken while Douglas Fairbanks made a short speech and divvied out golden statues to his colleagues. The event was apparently a rather quiet one, virtually free of the media.

We know that a nervous studio head created the AMPAS to curb union formations in Hollywood and to exert more control over his employees. But what about the awards ceremony? Was it established for an underhanded purpose as well? Yeah, it apparently was.

In Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Scott Eyman quotes a rather smug-sounding Mayer on the Oscars:

I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. […] If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.

Keep that gem in mind as you watch the Oscars tonight.

Additional Sources:History of the Academy Awards; Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; "The House That Mr. Mayer Built: Inside the Union-Busting Birth of the Academy Awards."