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It’s Oscar season. Here’s everything you need to know about winning one.

Hey, everybody! Let's win some Oscars!
Hey, everybody! Let's win some Oscars!
Helga Esteb /
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s November, which means Oscar campaign season is heating up.

But how does that process happen? How can you win an Oscar? It’s too late for you this year — and maybe even too late for next year's Oscars. But the 2016 awards, held in 2017? That’s a whole other matter!

Please note that what follows is simply a layman’s overview of the situation. The actual Oscars have several crazy, weird bylaws and exceptions that will pertain in very specific cases that you can read about here. And if you want to know more about the messed-up balloting system, go here.

So how can I win an Oscar?

It’s all about positioning yourself to get nominated. To do that, you'll need to be nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization of just under 6,000 people who work (or used to work) in the film industry and do all of the voting on the Oscars.

But first, you’re going to need to have an Oscar qualifying run.

What’s that?

Well, it depends on what kind of film you’re making. The rules are slightly different for documentaries, shorts, and foreign films, but let’s just assume you’re making a feature film, because those are the most common films out there. As such, you need to make a film of at least 40 minutes in length that debuts theatrically and plays for at least a week in Los Angeles County.

So if you’ve got a movie that’s going to video on-demand or direct to DVD, you had better book a single screen in Long Beach a couple of days before that happens, to be eligible.

In practice, this throws the floodgates open very far, because there are a lot of movie theaters in Los Angeles County, and a lot of movies made every year. But the Oscars are an expensive proposition, one that requires lots of campaigning and glad-handing, and to be able to afford that, you’re going to need two things — the right kind of film, and the right kind of distributor.

What kind of film should I make?

Most of the old jokes about Oscar-bait are true. The Academy really, really prefers films about historically important topics, especially if they have anything at all to do with World War II. It loves big, sweeping epics, and if you have gently liberal politics (that primarily focus on the failings of the past, rather than those of the present), that’s another bonus.

There’s room for the occasional film in another genre, but for the most part, the Academy loves dramas — especially historical ones. If you’re going to try to win with a comedy, God help you, you may as well try making a comedy about working in show business (see also: The Artist). Meanwhile, if you make a film in the sci-fi, fantasy, or horror genres, you’re probably screwed. To date, only two films in those genres — The Silence of the Lambs and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — have won Best Picture, and many, many classics in all three genres have even been snubbed at the nomination level (see also: 2001: A Space Odyssey).

If you are Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios, and, thus, somehow responsible for a boatload of superhero movies, you are probably out of luck as well. If The Dark Knight couldn’t crack the Best Picture lineup in 2008, no superhero movie is going to for a while.

Finally, if you’re trying to win as an actor — particularly a male actor — it sure does help to play a historical figure. Not everyone who’s won an acting prize was playing somebody who actually existed, but a lot of them were — including seven of the last 10 Best Actor winners.

12 Years a Slave

The producers (including Brad Pitt, far right) and director (Steve McQueen, second from right) of 12 Years a Slave celebrate its Best Picture Oscar win. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Phew. My World War II-set romance is safe! Which distributor should I seek?

This is one of those Oscar things people don’t really think about, because few of us get really excited when we hear, "Oh, hey, a new movie is coming out from Paramount!" But the distributor that handles a film absolutely figures into whether it sees Oscar love. Certain distributors are just better at playing the game and, thus, frequently back films that do well with the Academy.

Make no mistake, though — the quality of the Oscar campaign (and the narrative surrounding the film that campaign shapes) is one of the most important aspects of the Oscar process.

In general, the best distributors tend to be the big studios’ boutique arms. By this I mean divisions like Fox Searchlight or Focus Features (part of the Universal conglomerate). These are divisions that produce smaller budget films or pick up movies at festivals, and they get some of the benefit of being part of a big studio at Oscar time (particularly more money to spend on campaigning than a true indie distributor), while also maintaining a veneer of "independence" from their big brothers who release the giant blockbusters that make all the money.

Generally speaking, the big studios are much more hit and miss at the Oscar game. They have successes here and there — Warner Bros.’ Argo did very well for itself two years ago — but they tend to leave the Oscar game to others within their corporate structures. Disney, for instance, hasn’t had a live-action Best Picture nominee since Mary Poppins in 1964. (It’s done better in the field of animation, where Beauty and the Beast and a couple of its co-productions with Pixar have managed the feat.)

If you’re not working with a major studio’s boutique arm, however, don’t lose hope. Independent distributors can sometimes have good luck if they focus on just one particular aspect of the film that’s worth rewarding. Take 2010’s Winter’s Bone, where small distributor Roadside Attractions successfully pushed for a Best Actress nomination for rising star Jennifer Lawrence — and managed to get a few other nominations (including Best Picture) as well.

The major exception to this rule is The Weinstein Company, a small, independent distributor that has seen massive Oscar success in its handful of years as a company. The reason? It's run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who dominated the Oscars in the '90s at Miramax (first their own company and later a division of Disney) and know how the game is played well enough to succeed on their own.

What does an Oscar campaign involve?

Some of it is easily visible to the public. When Ethan Hawke swings by a talk show for seemingly no reason, he might be there because he wants to remind the world that Boyhood exists and is a very good movie.

Or if you happen to live in Los Angeles, it will be hard to miss the giant billboards or trade publications boasting For Your Consideration ads. Or, hell, even people not in Los Angeles might notice their favorite entertainment websites inundated with Oscar-related advertisements (which can make these sites upwards of millions of dollars).

But so much Oscar campaigning happens outside of the public eye, at festivals and parties and press events designed to bring Oscar contenders into contact with Oscar voters — who tend to be older and more artistically conservative than most and often have to be talked into edgier work. The Academy has made efforts to bring in more young voters to help offset this, and those younger voters have had some effect in certain categories. There’s no way that, say, the lovely, melancholy sci-fi romance Her wins Best Original Screenplay without their votes, for instance. But for the most part, this is still a group that goes for solid, middle-of-the-road movies with good craftsmanship. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing!

The Social Network should have beaten The King’s Speech!

Yeah, probably, but that doesn’t make The King’s Speech a bad movie at all, just a different, less artistically ambitious one that still has considerable charms. It’s important to remember in the process of considering the Oscars that the voters occasionally nominate or even crown outright terrible movies (see also: Crash), but for the most part, they pick solid entertainments that make for a good night out at the multiplex — even if they don’t pick all-time classics every year.

OK, so, can I pick what category I compete in?

This really only applies to the acting and writing categories, so we’ll tackle those one at a time.

If you’re a performer in a film, you can certainly suggest which category you’d like to be considered in via all of those For Your Consideration ads, but the Oscar voters are welcome to slot you wherever they’d like you, within reason.

Actors with two films in competition often try to suggest one is a lead performance and one a supporting one, as they can only be nominated in each category once. But this doesn’t always work. For instance, Kate Winslet had two films in competition in 2008, with The Reader and Revolutionary Road. She attempted to campaign as a supporting actress for the former and lead actress for the latter, but voters ultimately nominated her solely for The Reader — in the lead category (where she later won). Something similar happened with Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle Hughes in 2003.

If you’re the writer of a film, you’re limited by the Academy’s rules about what constitutes an adaptation and what constitutes an original screenplay. And these can be confusing! A movie that is based on historical events that the screenwriter herself researched (rather than a specific book or account of those events) is an original screenplay, for instance, while a sequel to an already existing film — where the storyline has to be invented from whole cloth, even if the characters don’t — is an adapted screenplay. You might think you did brilliantly original work when writing Chutes and Ladders: The Movie, but the board game basis is going to restrict you to the adapted category.


Boyhood is one of the films positioning itself for a run at the Oscar this year. (IFC)

OK, so say I have all of this in place. What should I do in my campaign?

The most important thing you can do is establish a narrative for your film, one that positions it less as just a movie and more as part of some larger social or historical movement. For instance, last year’s race came down to 12 Years a Slave versus Gravity. The former positioned itself as an important, historical movie that addressed a grievous American sin, while the latter positioned itself as the kind of big-screen spectacle that only the movies could provide. Both campaigns appealed, in other words, to Hollywood’s vanity, to its willingness to pat itself on the back for either asking the tough questions or providing the nation with superior entertainment. (It didn’t hurt that both films had Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock out there to solidify those narratives either.)

If you pay attention to ads for Oscar contenders that are trickling out this year, you can already see these narratives struggling to take hold. Boyhood, for instance, positioned itself as a true American original, while Selma (a film about Martin Luther King, Jr.) used the time-honored tactic of letting voters suggest their support for an important moment in history by voting for a movie about it. Both filmswere met with terrific reviews, but their actual quality largely fell by the wayside when it comes to getting voters to support them.

This is important, though. Because you need to find your voting coalition and keep them together, through thick and thin.

How do I find my coalition?

Remember: only around 6,000 people vote on these things, and to crack the Best Picture lineup, you only need to sway 5 percent of them to your side. (That number gets even smaller in the individual categories, which are voted on by smaller subsets of the whole body.) That means roping together around 300 voters who will love your film above all else — or at least above other likely contenders.

Ever since the Academy switched to the system wherein it nominates between 5 and 10 films that have crossed a threshold of having the support of 5 percent of Academy members, figuring this out has become vital. Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ paean to the New York folk music scene of the 1960s, was a tremendous film, but it couldn’t crack last year’s race, because it had trouble pulling its likely voters away from other films like Her and 12 Years a Slave. A big part of this stage of the campaign is knowing the kind of voter you’re appealing to — a younger one who wishes to see films experiment more, or an older voter who wishes movies were like they were in the 1940s, or somebody else entirely.

And this is really important, because the Best Picture voting process is incredibly complicated. Voters may get to write down up to 10 ranked films on their ballot, but once one of those films clears the 5 percent bar and makes it into the lineup, that ballot is removed from the voting process entirely. Thus, someone who really liked Her and Llewyn Davis last year but preferred Her ultimately had their vote count only for that film, once it cracked the Best Picture race.

But though this sounds challenging, the number of voters required to crack the race is quite small, hovering somewhere around 300, given the amount of members the Academy has that year (which fluctuates, thanks to deaths and inductions of new members). A movie that’s way outside of the Academy’s comfort zone, like The Tree of Life, can crack the race just by finding a few hundred voters who are wildly passionate about it. That movie, however, is unlikely to win.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto poses with his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Yay! I got nominated! How do I win?

Sadly, by the time you have your nomination, whether or not you’ll win is most likely already set in stone, thanks to things like the various critics groups and other awards bodies that reward films in the build-up to the Oscars. These awards are known as the "precursors," and they can set a narrative so thoroughly that nothing can dislodge it. Groups supporting trans people, for instance, spent much of last year’s Oscar season grousing about Jared Leto’s inevitable Best Supporting Actor win, but there was little to be done, even if his performance was atrocious. The narrative was set, and Leto was being rewarded for the questionable "bravery" of appearing on screen in women’s clothing.

This is why it’s often so easy to predict the Oscars for those who’ve paid attention to the race and why the awards themselves often seem like a bloated, long overdue mess to true Oscar fanatics. Sure, there are a couple of races that come down to the wire every year (like Best Picture did last year), but for the most part, the results are set in stone by early February.

But we have faith in you and your unspecified World War II-set romance, particularly if you happen to be playing Dwight D. Eisenhower or something. We hope to see you onstage at the Dolby Theatre in February of 2017, collecting your prize.

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