The Oscars, and the Tricks to Winning One

The Academy Awards are this weekend - but how do you actually go about winning one? Plus: some Oscar predictions.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Whether or not you believe they’re still relevant, the Oscars are undeniably the biggest event in the Hollywood calendar. I am fascinated by them, what intrigues me most is the general consensus that this process is a game of strategy and if you want to win, you have to know the rules. But actors and directors don’t have time to work this out for themselves, they’re far too busy and important. I however am not. Therefore I have poured over lists of Oscar winners for more time than is healthy in order to determine exactly what it takes to win one of these much desired awards. I’m going to give you the tried and tested formulai for how to win Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture. I’m also going to give my predictions for this year’s winners based on my totally scientific, 100% accurate theories. Before we get started, here’s a little bit of information for anyone in any category seeking one of those coveted statuettes.

How it works

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS or ‘The Academy’) is comprised of over 7000 artists, film makers and professionals either working in or who have worked in, the film industry.

There are two rounds of votes; nominees are decided by the first round and the winners by the second.

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Members are sorted into their professional fields; actors, writers, cinematographers and so on, but also non-creative roles like public relations and executives. In most categories only members working in that field are allowed to create the shortlist of nominees, meaning only editors can vote for best editor and only directors can vote for best director etc.

In the second round of votes all members can vote in all categories from the list of nominees. The only exception to this is the category of Best Picture which gets voted on by all Academy members, both times.

Know your audience

It’s no secret that the Academy is predominantly three things; male, white and over 60. A report from the Los Angeles times in 2012 found that the Academy was 94% Caucasian, 77% male, with an average age of 62 (at the time of the study people under 50 made up just 14% of the membership). The Los Angeles times found that roughly 50% of members were currently working in the industry but because Academy membership is generally for life, many voters hadn’t worked on a film in decades.

Since that report came out the Academy have been trying to redress the balance. 2016 does seem to be a turning point and, after two successive years where no black actors featured in any of the four acting categories, on the 26th January 2016 the Academy announced that they were bringing in new membership rules meaning membership will now last for 10 years and will only be renewed if that member has been active in the industry during that decade or fits other membership criteria.

related article: What’s Diversity Got to Do With the Oscars?

Whether or not the new rules have an effect on what and who gets nominated remains to be seen but the Academy ask a new batch of potential members to join every year and the invitees are getting more diverse each time (there is no official list of members but the Academy put out a list of everyone they invite each year and I was delighted to discover that in 2014 Jason Statham was invited to become a member, no word yet on whether he actually accepted). The situation is far from ideal but things appear to be moving in the right direction. And now on with the show… 

How to win Best Actress

The most obvious answer to this is be Katharine Hepburn or Meryl Streep. Katharine Hepburn won four best actress Oscars in her lifetime which is more than anyone, male or female, for any in the field of acting. Meryl Streep is a nomination garnering machine, earning herself 15 nominations and two wins over her career to date.

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However, seeing as there’s only one Meryl, you may have to make yourself the best candidate for the prize. Age wise, it’ll probably come as no surprise to the ladies, it pays to be young. The average age of a Best Actress Oscar winner (at the time they win their award) is 36. Of the 88 recipients 64 of them have been under the age of 40 as they took to the stage to claim their prize.

If you don’t just want to rely on your youth it’d be wise to pick a role that is female centered. This has been a trend since the awards began; Meryl Streep won in 1984 for Sophie’s Choice, a film about a horrifying choice made by a mother, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich as a single mother working in the male-dominated legal world, Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl about female Broadway star Fanny Brice and how her success affected her relationships, Natalie Portman in Black Swan dealing with female sexuality and issues of body image. There are tons of other examples but bottom line, if you want to win, make it female specific.

Also for a good litmus test for potential winners look to the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG) and the Golden Globes. Each of the last three SAG winners for Female Actor in a Leading Role went on to bag the Best Actress Oscar and over the last six years five of the Golden Globe Winners for Best Actress in a Drama have gone on to win with the Academy.

Prediction for this year’s winner: Brie Larson for Room

Brie Larson pretty much has it in the bag at this point. She won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Leading Role, she’s currently 26 so fits the age bracket and the story of a captive mother and child is definitely female centered. Aside from all the statistics Larson’s performance is so raw and courageous that I fail to see how they could give it to anyone else.

How to Win Best Actor

As with the previous category there’s an even more obvious person to be, Daniel Day Lewis. He has won no less than three Best Actor Oscars (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, and Lincoln). However in the likely even that you are not Daniel Day Lewis and you sill want to win an Oscar, you may want to take heed.

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Age wise the average winner of a Best Actor Oscar is 44 and, conversely to recipients of the the Best Actress Award, only 32 of the 88 winners have been under 40 (pause for effect in the wake of an obvious double standard…). The youngest ever winner was Adrien Brody who was 29 when he won for The Pianist.

Again, the Best Actor Oscar has connection with the SAG Awards. Since 2004 the winner of Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama at the SAG awards has gone on to win Best Actor at the Oscars. Also, same with the Golden Globes and the winner of Best Actor in a Drama. Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Day Lewis, Colin Firth, and Jeff Bridges all did the double.

Not to make the Academy sound like a bunch of sadists but they do like to see an actor struggle. That can in one of two ways; through the character story or physical transformation.

Last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne portrayed Professor Stephen Hawking’s fight against motor neurone disease, Colin Firth won for The King’s Speech where George VI has to overcome a speech impediment, Sean Penn won for Milk about the struggles of the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US. If it’s a story about someone over coming physical or social limitations, the Academy love it.

Maybe you don’t know if your story portrays a great enough struggle, in which case you might want to hedge your bets and lose, or gain a load of weight. Matthew McConaughey took the award home for his role in Dallas Buyers Club for which he reportedly lost over 3 stone in bodyweight. Robert De Niro put on 5 stone to play down-on-his-luck Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. However, Will Smith spent a year boxing traning and upped his weight to 15 stone prior to his role in Ali but lost out to Denzel Washington on the night, so slimming down or beefing up isn’t a dead cert, but it’s worth knowing.  Prediction for this year’s winner: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant

Is has to be, hasn’t it? He won at the SAG Awards, he won at the Golden Globes, he’s put himself through the mill working in temperatures of -25°c, sleeping in animal carcasses and eating raw bison liver. He’s recently turned 41 so age is finally on his side. Maybe this year really is his year. 

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How to Win Best Picture

Firstly, make your film about something the white/male/60 years+ Academy would like to see. You can make something culturally relevant to the time in which it’s released, that might get you a nomination, but it’s unlikely to nab you the win (see: The Social Network) because tales of the glorious (or not so glorious) past will always win out.

The same goes for anything technology based or ideas driven; special effects giant Avatar losing out to The Hurt Locker, Her, about sentient Operating Systems and Gravity a technical showcase for in camera effects lost to 12 Years A Slave, the hyper-real CGI of Life Of Pi beaten by Argo, cerebral blockbuster Inception missing out to The King’s Speech. Give them an option and AMPAS will go for character over computers every time.

Tying in to that; focus on actors. Actors make up the biggest professional field in the Academy (23% of members are or were actors or actresses). This goes some way to explaining why the preference of character over concept, make your film actor-driven and get that 23% on side.

Next, make it a drama and make it live action. Musicals had their day in the 50s and 60s with the likes of An American In Paris, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady all scooping up the prize. Most recently Chicago won in 2002 but prior to that a musical hadn’t won the top prize since Oliver! in 1968. As for comedy, if it’s a comedy drama like Driving Miss Daisy or a romantic comedy like Annie Hall or The Apartment, you might be in with an outside chance but an out-and-out comedy has never won. Also if you’re an animated movie, the Academy doesn’t care how good you are, there’s no way you’re winning Best Picture. Only three animated movies have ever been nominated (Beauty And The Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3) and none of them have ever won.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Oscars is basically Hollywood telling itself how good it is and so a recent trend amongst winners is movies about the movie industry. Birdman is a story about a former superhero actor trying to gain critical acceptance, Argo a film about how the film industry saves a bunch of US Embassy workers from Iranian activists, The Artist about the transition from silent film to sound shook up the industry and everyone who worked in it. This and the oft cited obsession the Oscars has with films set in World War 2 are good thematic things to bear in mind.

Finally, win other Oscars. It is rare that a film will win Best Picture having not picked up other awards prior to that. Last Year Birdman won Best Director, Best Original screenplay and Best Cinematography, the year before that 12 Years A Slave won Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, the year before that Argo won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing and so on and so forth. Bag as many Oscars as you can on the way to the finish line and you may well be in with a chance.

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Prediction for this year’s winner: The Revenant

There’s no clear winner in Best Picture this year. The likes of The Martian, Brooklyn, and Bridge Of Spies aren’t really in with a chance, they have little buzz and haven’t been doing spectacularly well at other awards shows. I would love it if The Force Awakens won but it’s very definitely sci-fi and in the world of Oscar, drama is king. The Big Short and Spotlight are certainly actor-driven but they may be a touch too modern for the Academy’s more classic tastes.

I live in hope that George Miller will win Best Director for Mad Max: Fury Road, but taking into account all we’ve learned, the smart money is on Alejandro Iñárritu. If that comes to fruition and my previous prediction of Leo’s win is correct, plus the fact that it’s an actor driven, non-tech focused, tale of triumph over adversity, The Revenant should be primed to take the top prize.

And Finally…

Does this by-the-numbers approach diminish the value of these awards by highlighting how predictable they are? Probably.

Am I still going to order a pizza and stay up till 5 am to watch them? Absolutely.

For all the bad you can say about the Academy the Oscars still carry prestige and in between the awkward presenter muck ups and John Travolta being odd around Idina Menzel/Adele Dazeem, there are genuine moments of celebration that make it worthwhile.

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Tegan and Sarah and The Lonely Island’s performance of Everything Is Awesome giving out Lego Oscars while Will Arnett sings Untitled Self Portrait wearing Val Kilmer’s Batsuit. Jean Dujardin tap dancing with joy after winning his Best Actor Oscar. Philippe Petit balancing his Oscar on his chin after Man On Wire won Best Documentary Feature. Graham Moore’s wonderful speech telling kids to “stay different” when The Imitation Game won best adapted screenplay. Those moments speak to the wider influence of films, the joy they bring and the messages they impart.

Then there are all the films whose box office was helped by their Oscar buzz; The Kings Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Whiplash, Room, Brooklyn; Say what you like about the awards themselves, the positive effect on their low budget nominees is undeniable and the boost to the careers of those involved, incomparable.

To me the Oscars are predominantly a positive thing; they still have a way to go if they want to better reflect the cinematic landscape of today but they are, at their heart, a celebration of the medium that this writer loves more than any other.

So please take your seat, the show is about to begin.

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