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5 stories that prove the rules of the Oscars are even weirder than you thought

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.

Read through the rules and regulations that govern the Oscars, and you'll find a hodgepodge of weird clauses and statutes that seem to be pasted onto the overall awards at random. But plenty of these are there for a reason — at some point, somebody found a loophole in the rules, and they've been spackled over to prevent future exploitation of said loophole.

Here are five of the oddest sections of the Oscar rules, and the reasons they're there.

1) The award that hasn't been given since 1985

If you want to win a trivia contest, ask someone how many Oscar categories are still in existence. Most people will answer with 24, the number of awards given out at every ceremony since 2002 (when the Best Animated Feature category was first awarded).

But the answer is actually 25, because of a category still on the books that never reaches the necessary threshold to be activated. (Indeed, it has never been awarded under its current name.) The category is called Best Original Musical, and it's meant to be given to a song score for a film that's either performed by the characters onscreen or used effectively as voiceover to comment on the action. (For an example of the latter, think of Simon & Garfunkel's work in The Graduate.)

The last time this award was given was in 1985, when it was given to Prince for the songs from Purple Rain (yes, Prince is an Oscar winner). Purple Rain defeated Songwriter (with songs by Kris Kristofferson) and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

The category has a long, varied history. For a while, it was given to original song scores or adaptations of existing song scores (usually Broadway musicals transported to the big screen). It has been won by John Williams (for adapting the score for Fiddler on the Roof for screen) and The Beatles (for Let It Be). But since the '80s, adapted scores (which now mostly refers to sequels that build off of prior films' musical themes) have been folded into the "Best Original Score" category — and only if they're deemed "sufficiently original." That's ultimately had the effect of leaving Best Original Musical out in the cold.

The Academy tried to fix this for a bit in the '90s by creating "Best Original Musical or Comedy Score," but that led to a completely arbitrary distinction between "comedy" and "drama" no other Academy branch made. Thus, the Original Musical or Comedy Score category was discontinued after the 1998 Oscars (given in 1999), when Shakespeare in Love won.

What would it take to "trigger" the Best Original Musical category? The rules aren't explicitly clear. They say the category can be activated "by special request of the Music Branch Executive Committee to the Board of Governors in a year when the field of eligible submissions is determined to be of sufficient quantity and quality to justify award competition."

There's no specific guideline here, but the cutoff at which the music branch might eliminate the related categories Original Score or Original Song is nine qualified contenders. (By the way, neither has been eliminated in any year since their inception.) Thus, it seems likely that if there were somehow nine original song scores in a year, Best Original Musical might return to the Oscars.

2) The rule against TV pilots

The Academy generally has a rule against films that debuted on TV competing (something that famously hurt Linda Fiorentino's bid for an Oscar nomination for The Last Seduction, which showed on HBO before hitting theaters). This makes sense. The Oscars are for celebrating the best of film, not the best of television.

But if you dig down to the short film category, you'll notice something odd: an explicit prohibition against unaired TV pilots. And that might seem like the Academy being overly cautious until you realize that an unaired pilot actually won the live-action short film category in 1997.

Dear Diary, written and directed by David Frankel and produced by Barry Jossen (both of whom won Oscars for it), starred Bebe Neuwirth as a married mother in her 40s who decides to keep a diary. The narration of her days' events comes to life as she writes. Intended as a project for ABC, the network passed, not sure what to do with a sitcom that didn't feature the usual bursts of audience laughter and expected theatrical staging.

After Dear Diary didn't go forward at ABC, Frankel and Jossen gave it a brief theatrical run, which qualified it for the Oscars. The pilot's budget — over $1 million — was seen as an unfair competitive advantage in a category where nominees typically have low budgets, and the loophole was eventually closed shortly thereafter.

"We're probably the first TV pilot ever to get nominated [for an Oscar]," Frankel told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, "and I wouldn't be surprised that we're the last."

The animated short film category has also been won by a TV project that actually aired. Animator Richard Williams's adaptation of A Christmas Carol triumphed in 1973, after debuting on television.

3) Actually, the original song category is a mess

The 2013 Oscars (held in 2014) were home to one of the weirdest Oscar controversies in years, when a song from the little-known film Alone Yet Not Alone was nominated for Best Original Song out of nowhere. It turned out the song was written by Bruce Broughton, a former Academy governor and at that time an executive in the Academy's music branch. Broughton had used his influence to improperly campaign for his song, the Academy found, and it was disqualified.

But the Original Song category is a mess anyway. For a long time, it was possible for it to drop to as few as two nominees (as it did at the ceremony in 2012, with a song from The Muppets beating one from Rio), because music branch members didn't just vote for their favorite songs but also ranked those songs on a scale from 1 to 10. Only songs that averaged 8.25 or higher were allowed to be nominated, and if only one song scored that well, then it and the next highest-ranked song would get in. (Presumably, this was what happened with The Muppets and Rio.)

Since then, the rules have been modified to have three nominees if there are fewer than 25 legitimate candidates and five nominees if there are more than 25 candidates.

But this is also complicated by rules that say that songs can only be nominated if they are integral to the film in question, or if they play as the first cue over the closing credits. That latter loophole allowed for lots of movies to win with largely disconnected credits songs in the past, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung back toward songs that actually work within the context of the movie, like "Let It Go" from Frozen or "Jai Ho," the triumphant song that scores the dance number in Slumdog Millionaire.

Finally, you'll notice a provision saying that a film may have a maximum of two nominations in this category. That's occasionally credited to the dominance of '90s Disney movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, which each garnered three nominations here. But the last film to receive three Original Song nominations was actually 2007's Enchanted, and Dreamgirls scored three nominations the year before.

4) The animated feature category is also pretty messed up

The bylaws for best animated feature prominently state that motion-capture animation is not, in and of itself, considered animation. Instead, animation means something captured "frame-by-frame." Never mind that motion-captured footage is often painted over in a computer or via hand-drawn animation in the process of rotoscoping. And never mind that many animators draw from real-life models, which is only a step or two removed from motion-capture.

The animated feature category has prompted some frustration this year, with the odd snub of The Lego Movie, one of the year's best-reviewed, biggest hits. But the category's weird biases toward certain processes may have contributed here. Many of the film's sets were created with actual Legos, with the characters and other elements in motion being added via computer-assisted animation. But that line between live-action and animation may have proved too blurry for the animation branch, which likely dinged the film for not featuring "enough" animation.

"Animation must feature in no less than 75 percent of the film's running time," say the rules. That may seem self-explanatory when it comes to a film like The Lego Movie (which features far more than 75 percent animation). But one of the film's final scenes is set in the "real" world (and filmed with traditional live-action techniques and real Legos), perhaps pushing too far away from the frame-by-frame process for some in the animation branch.

It's still pretty stupid.

5) There are only a handful of categories where viewers need to have seen every film

Truth be told, Academy voters don't need to see every film nominated to vote in most categories. They don't even need to vote in every category.

However, the Academy does restrict voting in the foreign language, documentary, and short film categories to those who have seen every nominee, since the films are aimed at specialty markets. In the past, this requirement has led to some odd choices, since the members most likely to have the time to watch all of these films were usually retired or no longer active within the industry. That meant the voters tended to skew older.

Thus, something like the harsh drama The White Ribbon could lose to The Secret in Our Eyes, or Pan's Labyrinth could lose to The Lives of Others, despite Pan's picking up numerous Oscars in other categories. All of these films are quite good, but both Secret and Lives skew more toward conventional or historical storytelling than their competitors.

This also led to awards for conventionality in the documentary category, meaning it often took forever for truly visionary documentarians like Errol Morris to be awarded.

But the Academy has changed these rules this year, sort of. Every member was mailed a package with DVDs featuring the documentary, foreign, and shorts nominees. The rule about only voting if you've seen all nominees is still on the books, but it has been effectively reduced to the honor system. (Previously, voters would have to attend special screenings to check off that they had seen all five nominees.) Will this have any impact on the winners? We'll know Sunday night.

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