And the Award Goes to...A Close Look Into the Nomination Process

By: Jenny Paschall Lyon 

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star in The Banshees of Inisherin.

Many awards are clearly understood. Best actor, best costume, best cinematography for example, are all pretty clear. Writer Jenny Paschall Lyon dives into what actually goes into voting for nominations.

Hollywood is in full Awards Season Mode. The glitz and glamor of Tinseltown is on display for all to see. But behind the flashing bulbs and the dazzling gowns there is an entire industry waiting with bated breath to see who will collect the biggest prize of all – an Academy Award. Every year, the Oscar buzz begins to crescendo about now. Who will win best actress or actor, which movie will scoop up the most prizes, whose dreams will be shattered on Oscar night, who will be clutching that golden statuettes at the after parties?


Those of us who love the movies are already discussing the potential nominees based, of course, on our own opinions of those we’ve seen. But how much do we really know about the voting process for the Academy Awards? Why do some movies that may not be our favorites sweep the board while others we have loved are completely ignored? First of all, let’s look at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – the body responsible for those famous envelopes which are opened while a celebrity utters the words ‘…and the winner is…..’


The Academy comprises approximately 9,500 voting members, all of whom have worked or are currently working in the motion picture industry. There are 17 branches covering all crafts ranging from Actors to Writers.  The membership process is by sponsorship, not application.  Candidates must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission. Only members of the Academy may nominate and vote for candidates for the Oscars. The nominees in each category are chosen by the members of the corresponding union or guild. Thus, writers nominate writers, directors nominate directors, and so on through costume design, sound effects, cinematography, makeup etc. The entire academy membership moves outside of their own field to nominate the candidates for best picture and votes to determine the winners in most of the categories. This means that, unlike most of the categories, the best picture vote is chosen by a much larger, more general audience.

Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink star in The Whale.  A Psychological Drama written by Samuel D. Hunter and based on his 2012 play of the same name.

I spoke to Hollywood veteran, Peter Saphier. A television and feature executive with Universal Studios for many years, he produced Scarface and is the person who famously brought Jaws to the movie going public. As an Academy member, he votes for all categories. We discussed how the Academy has moved with the times, 95 years after its inception. He explained ‘One important thing that’s happened is the voting membership has doubled in the last ten years. And the average age of voting members used to be over 60 years old, with a preponderance of men. Now the members are trending younger, with more women, and very much more diversity, so we’re seeing a change in the choice of nominations and winners.’


Speaking of nominations, how much do we know about the various categories involved?


Many of them are clearly understood. Best actor, best costume, best cinematography etc., are all pretty clear. But what, for example, does directing entail and what are the criteria for nominations?


Ron Lyon, another Hollywood veteran and voting member of the Directors Guild, recently moved to Doylestown from LA. A former studio executive and creator of ABC’s Ripleys  Believe It Or Not, director of hundreds of hours of Hollywood biographies and series for broadcasters including Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, Travel Channel, he has years of directing under his belt. I asked him to describe what a director’s role entails. ‘If the screenwriter creates the foundation, which is the story, the director is in charge of visualizing and providing everything that brings that concept to life,’ he explained. ‘Effectively, the director gets a blank canvas and loads of paint tubes from the writer. If each one of those tubes of paint represent a part of the story it’s up to the director to decide how that finished canvas will look.’

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu star in Everything Everywhere All at Once.  It’s said the message is of the theory that no matter which one you choose, in the end, it won’t make much of a difference.

Voters access the movies by seeing them in any theatre. They also receive screeners (dvds). Additionally, the Studios often organize publicity campaigns, which may include lunches, dinners or cocktail receptions, some of which are quite lavish and may be attended by the stars of the movie being screened.  I asked Lyon if his vote was ever swayed by a particularly extravagant event. ‘Never. A good movie is a good movie – a good party doesn’t change the content!’

So, now we know a little about the voting process, but what is it that elevates one movie above another and secures the initial nomination and, ultimately, walks away with the prize of best movie?


Saphier describes the journey. ‘For me, it’s very individual. A visceral gut reaction. An emotional response. That dictates my vote every time. It’s not about technique – It has to do with the involvement factor. Have I been pulled into this movie completely and do I want to see it again? That’s how I relate to movies. Last year when Coda won I applauded it because that involved me.’


Lyon’s answer to the same question was almost identical. ‘How does this particular story affect me?’ He says.’ When I’m voting for best director, I look at all aspects of the movie – the acting, the costume design, music, art direction, cinematography – everything goes back to the director’s choices and it’s the combination of all those elements that create the entire product. In some instances, one or more of those aspects is so overwhelming that even though one or another may not match that level, I might still vote for this as best director. But when it’s all said and done, it’s the visceral reaction to the film as a whole that makes it a winner.’


Regarding this year’s batch of contenders which include such diverse movies as The Banshees of Inisherin, Top Gun, Avatar, The Whale, TAR, The Fabelmans, Everything Everywhere All At Once, All Quiet On The Western Front – a mix of comedy, tragedy and big screen adventure, I asked Saphier if it’s hard to choose between the different genres. ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘It’s the after effect. I have to debrief myself. Which one registered the most? Which one stuck with me? I would vote for a comedy as best movie, but there haven’t been any great comedies in recent years that I can think of, that moved me to vote for them.’

The first Academy Award Ceremony was held in 1929 and was founded by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios.  Photo Credit: History Extra’s website.

So, which movies will get the votes of these 2 Hollywood insiders? ‘This is a difficult year’, says Lyon, ‘There are a lot of very fine films. To me, the most innovative and touching film of the year is the Banshees of Inishirin. More fascinating because while it’s an extremely simple setting and story, its complexity and the questions it asks are remarkably profound. And it’s gorgeous to look at.’


And Saphier? He ticked off the list. ’I haven’t seen them all yet. So far, the most impactful for me has been All Quiet On The Western Front.  Elvis was pretty good. The Fabelmans is okay but a minor movie. I did like Top Gun but it’s no best picture. TAR – no. Avatar – Cameron did an incredible job but it’s more of a technical movie than an emotional involvement.  I liked The Banshees of Inishirin, but it didn’t involve me the way All Quiet did in terms of full impact factor.’


We’ll just have to wait until March 12th to see if either of our experts’ gut reactions are in sync with the rest of their peers.


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