Over 1 billion people in more than 200 territories watched the Academy Awards telecast in 2006. The Oscars are the most influential entertainment awards in the world, an enduring phenomenon affecting not only the film industry, but also radio, television, and advertising, with an increasingly global impact.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927, with the aim of improving the industry’s status. The first Academy Awards were announced prior to the ceremony (a private banquet with 270 guests) in May 1929. The 15 awards included Outstanding Picture, Actor, Actress, and separate awards for Comedic and Dramatic Direction; Warner Bros. received a Special Award for The Jazz Singer, the only talkie mentioned. The statuette (designed by Cedric Gibbons) was produced for the occasion and remains largely unchanged; the nickname “Oscar” was not used officially until 1939.
There have been various changes to the awards, often in recognition of changing technologies. Sound Recording became a category for 1929/1930, with awards for Music (Scoring) and Music (Song) added in 1934. Special Effects was introduced in 1939 and later split into Sound Effects and Visual Effects (1963). Between 1939 and 1966, Cinematography and Art Direction were split into black-and-white and color achievements. Costume was added in 1948 (also split between black-and-white and color until 1956). Other awards were introduced: Supporting Actor/Actress (1936); Documentary (1941); Make-up (1981); and Animated Feature Film (2001). This list is not comprehensive, but indicates key changes in Hollywood filmmaking, particularly the emphasis on spectacle.
The Academy is organized into separate branches, e.g., Acting, Direction, Writing, Cinematography. Nominations are generated by the relevant branch, whose members are presumed best qualified to recognize quality within its area of specialty: the Acting Branch nominates actors, the Direction Branch nominates directors, etc. All Academy members can nominate Best Pictures. Foreign Language Films are nominated by the country of production and then selected by a special Academy committee. All active members then vote on all categories. The Academy’s tastes can partly be explained by its honorary membership: the Board of Governors invites people to join (Award nominees are automatically invited). Since only those with proven ability are invited to join, and membership is for life, members tend to be relatively old. They are also predominantly male: the Board of Governors currently comprises 35 men and seven women; with the exception of Acting, branches are also male-dominated.
These unintentional biases are significant, not least because of the economic impact of an Oscar nomination. Nomination improves bargaining power for future projects, but also brings immediate economic benefits. A 2001 study estimated that a Best Picture nomination can be worth US$11 million in domestic ticket sales alone (e.g., prior to nomination, Million Dollar Baby was playing in 147 US theaters; the weekend after, it was playing in 2,010), while a Best Actor/Actress nomination is estimated to add US$1 million. Nominations can also impact on sales of related merchandising, such as soundtracks and books.
Historically, the Awards have played an important part in media and communication. From 1930 to 1944, a portion of the ceremony was broadcast on local radio. In 1945, the ABC network began national broadcasts, while the Armed Forces Radio Service made the first overseas broadcast; together, they reached an unprecedented audience of 50 million in 1948. The NBC network broadcast the first televised ceremony in 1953. In 1959, 80 million Americans watched or listened to the show, while a further 100 million were reached overseas. This increasing audience affected the amount paid for TV rights. Disney-owned ABC currently pay US$37 million for the domestic rights – money well spent, since the Academy Awards consistently tops the ratings, enabling ABC to demand exceptionally high rates for advertising: in 1999, they charged US$1 million per 30-second commercial (totaling US$58 million); by 2004, this had risen to US$1.5 million. Buena Vista International Television (also Disney-owned) currently hold the rights to overseas licensing, expanding to new territories in Japan, Latin America, and Vietnam in 2006.
The Awards themselves have also become more international. Foreign-language films are technically eligible for any award, as long as they meet the normal requirements (theatrical release in Los Angeles for seven consecutive days); in practice, the Academy has always privileged English-language films. Levy (2001) estimates that 70 percent of nominees have been American, 20 percent British, and only 10 percent other nationalities; however, the majority of these non-American nominations were still for work on American films. The first foreign-language film to receive an award was Shoe-Shine, in 1947; a Special or Honorary Award was given to a foreign film most years afterwards, until the Foreign Language Film category was added in 1956 (La Strada won). The 1960s saw actors, actresses, and directors being nominated for foreign-language films (mostly European): Sophia Loren was the first actress to be nominated and still the only one to win (Two Women, 1961); Roberto Benigni is the only actor to win (Life is Beautiful, 1998). Foreign directors gained a higher number of nominations – including Federico Fellini (four times), Ingmar Bergman (three times), and Akira Kurosawa – but not one received the award. Nonetheless, two things are clear: foreign-language films became more “visible” in the 1960s (the height of European art cinema); and the Academy’s understanding of the world has expanded over the last 40 years to include European, East Asian, and Latin American cinema. African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cinema, however, rarely reaches their radar. Hollywood’s dominance means that the Academy Awards retain a global audience, but the reverse effect – global cinema reaching America – is notably weaker.
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