The 2019 Oscars are almost upon us and if you’re a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, henceforth known as the Academy, you can take part in the process which determines who walks away with one of those golden statuettes at the end of the night and who skulks off early desperately employing all their acting talents to keep the fixed grin on their face.
The Academy has around 8000 members, all film industry professionals of one sort or another, and in recent years efforts have been made to make its membership more diverse, although that hasn’t actually resulted in any women being nominated in this year’s Best Director or Best Picture categories.
The voting process is quite complicated, but essentially in the first round each member can nominate five potential winners in their own discipline. The first-choice nominations for, say, Best Supporting Actress are totted up and if they pass a certain threshold they go straight onto the shortlist. The supporting actress with the least number of nominations is then eliminated and the second choices of all those members who voted for her are added in, until another nominee crosses the threshold and gains a place on the shortlist.
This continues until there are five names on that list. The exception to this is the Best Picture category, because that shortlist is longer and can have up to ten titles on it. This year there are eight movies which are in with a shout.
Once the shortlists have been drawn up, the voting system becomes more straightforward, because all members can choose their personal winner in all categories and those with the most votes get to deliver their acceptance speeches on the big night.
You can’t say this blog isn’t educational and if you’ve ever wondered how the Oscar winners are decided, now you know. The Oscars are based on a voting system, but my broader point is that if you’re running any kind of competition in the UK, whether it’s a high-profile awards programme or a social media giveaway, you need a mechanism to select the winner and that mechanism needs to be demonstrably fair.
The CAP Code, which is administered by the ASA and governs these matters, says that if the selection of a winning entry is open to subjective interpretation, there should always be an independent judge. A judging panel should have a least one independent member and even if there is only one judge, they need to be independent – from the competition’s promoters and the pool of entrants from which the eventual winner is picked.
Under the CAP Code, anyone appointed to act as a judge should be competent to judge the competition and their full name must be made available on request. However, paying someone to act as an independent judge does not in itself compromise their independence.
In the case of the Oscars, this role is fulfilled by the accountancy firm PwC. Selecting a winner or winners, though, is only part of the role. Winners need to be verified. Are they who they say they are? Have they abided by the terms and conditions of the prize draw or competition? If you’re running a promotion which includes the submission of user-generated content, do the winners own the content – for example, a video or a photo – they’ve entered?
Granted, everyone knows who Bradley Cooper, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar this year, but PwC need to ensure that all the ballot papers have been completed by Academy members who are entitled to vote and no fraud has taken place, all the votes have been added up correctly and that the whole process has been administered fairly. Of course, PwC also needs to ensure that the name in the envelope is the right one, because in 2017 we all saw what happened when it wasn’t – and it was very embarrassing for all concerned, not least the star-struck PwC employee who got in a muddle.
The Oscars are an incredibly high-profile event, but best practice principles are the same for any promotion, large or small. This year the Oscars take place on the night of Sunday 24 February. I can’t be bothered to stay up into the early hours of Monday to watch the presentation ceremony live, but I do enjoy the morning after, the frocks and the faux pas, and these days there’s the additional frisson of anticipation over whether the name that’s read out will be the right one.
Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist.