Granger on Film: Here's who decide the Oscar winners

With this week’s revelation of the 2021 Oscar nominees — along with the surprises and snubs — are you curious about how the Academy Awards are decided?

There are 9,000 plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, divided into 17 distinct branches. While all include the proviso that extends an invitation to those who have been Oscar-nominated, each branch decides on its own criteria for admission.

Applicants must be sponsored by two members of the branch they wish to join, approved by the membership committee of that branch and then by the Board of Governors.

The entire membership nominates candidates for Best Picture with 366 pictures qualifying. It’s the largest since 1970, when 374 qualified. The number was boosted by new Oscar rules designated to accommodate changes in the distribution/exhibition brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Films were deemed eligible if they played for a week in a movie theater, including drive-ins, in one of six U.S. cities — expanding the previous rule requiring exhibition in both New York City and Los Angeles — and if they premiered on a streaming VOD/broadcast platform, plus showing in the members-only Academy Screening Room (screenings there cost $12,500.)

Under the Oscars’ preferential, or ranked-choice system, a voter can list five choices in order of preference. The vote only goes to the film ranked first on each ballot though unless that film has already been nominated or eliminated from contention. Then second choices come into play, involving lots of calculations by accountants. So it’s better to be ranked first on 1,000 ballots than second on 3,000.

To estimate the ‘nomination number’ for each branch, you take the number of voters and divide by the number of nominees. Therefore, this year’s eight Best Picture nominations — “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — required more than 830 first-ranked votes.

Except for International Feature, all the other nominations emanate from the individual branches.

The Actors Branch has always been the largest. The basic admission requirement is to have a scripted role in three films, with at least one of these from the past five years. There are currently 1,308 active members, so it takes 218 votes to land a nomination as Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress.

There are 809 active members in the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, making it the second largest. But there’s a catch: this category is open not only to branch members, but also to volunteers who are required to see an assigned group of nine films, exactly one-third of the qualifying contenders. So the number required to land a nomination depends on how many volunteers are added.

The third largest is the Documentary Branch with 586 members. They nominate Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short. A first round of voting narrowed the field from 240 qualifying to a 15-film shortlist. That means a documentary feature would take 98 first ranked votes to be nominated. The shortlist was then narrowed to 10 from which the branch members chose the nominees.

The Visual Effects Branch has 573 members but the calculations in this area were different. An Executive Committee narrowed the field to 20 films, then to a shortlist of 10. Clips from those films were then screened virtually for branch members, followed by brief discussions with the visual effects artists involved.

The Directors Branch has 550 members, meaning that a nomination needs 92 votes. To qualify, a director must have screen credit for two films with at least one of these from the past 10 years.

The Sound Branch has 526 members; this year, the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing awards have been combined, so 88 first-ranked votes secure a nomination.

The Writers Branch has 487 members, so it takes 82 first-ranked votes to garner a Best Original Screenplay and/or Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. FYI: the Writers Guild is a different organization and often omits several Oscar-contending screenplays - like ”Nomadland,” “Mank,” “Minari” and “Soul.” The Writers Guild does not cover most animated films, like Pixar’s “Soul.”

The Production Design Branch has 372 members, so 63 first-ranked votes needed for a nomination. To join this branch, one must have screen credit as production designer, art designer or set decorator on at least four films over the past five years. Art directors working under the supervision of production designers must have six screen credits.

The music branch has 368 members, who consider the 136 eligible scores and 105 eligible songs. An executive committee narrowed the field to two shortlists of 15, so 62 first-ranked votes secured a nomination in either category.

The Editing Branch as 364 members, so 61 is the magic number. To qualify, a film editor must have screen credit on at least four films, at least two of which must be single-card credits; shared credits and supervising film editor credits count as ½ each.

Cinematography follows with 270 members, meaning that 45 first place votes land a nomination. To qualify for membership, one must have been director of photography on two films with at least one of these from the past three years.

Makeup Artists & Hairstylists is the newest branch with 225 members. To qualify, one must have supervisory position credit on at least five films, three of which were within the last seven ears. Voting is restricted to members who viewed a special visual presentation of clips or have seen all 10 shortlisted films.

Costume Design has 161 members, meaning a nomination can be secured with 27 first place votes. To qualify, one must have screen credit on at least four films over a period of no less than five years.

Insofar as Best International Feature goes, nominations in this category come from volunteer members in all Branches of the Academy, so it’s impossible to estimate how many participated this year. After narrowing the field of 93 eligible films, a 15-film shortlist was submitted; any member who saw all 15 was eligible to vote.

If you’re calculating, add in 876 emeritus members, 661 executives, 586 marketing an public relations members, 537 members-at-large (this encompasses stunt performers and those who work in fields for which there’s no branch), 140 casting directors and 95 associate members. That comes to a grand total of 10,098. These members-without-a-branch can only vote to nominate Best Picture.

For a while, there was speculation whether there would be a 93rd annual Oscar ceremony. But no major awards show — Golden Globes, Emmys, Tonys, Oscars — has ever been canceled, although there have been three Oscar postponements: in 1938, 1968 and 1981. In each case, it was just for a few days.

As for whether streaming services will obliterate theatrical exhibition, Bad Robot’s chairman/director J.J. Abrams insists, “There’s a reason that the Roaring Twenties followed the 1918 pandemic. We have a pent-up, desperate need to see each other — to socialize and share communal experiences. And there is nothing I can think of that is more exciting than being in a theater with people you don’t know, who don’t necessarily like the same sports teams or pray to the same god or eat the same food. But you’re screaming together, laughing together, crying together. It’s a social necessity.”

In the weeks before the Academy Awards on Sunday, April 25, I’ll be looking at the various contenders in the 23 categories, recommending what you should see so you can determine your own preferences.

Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.