Everything You Need to Know About the Academy Awards

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Win an Oscar, and you’ll forever be referred to as “Oscar winner [your name].” That’s because industry insiders and outsiders alike consider an Academy Award honor to be the pinnacle of success in the film world. You can reap the glory by just being nominated (or nominated 21 times, if you’re Meryl Streep, the reigning queen of Oscar nods). 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ (AMPAS) celebration of the year in film is Hollywood’s biggest night. The nominations for the 96th Oscars were announced on Jan. 23, 2024, and the ceremony will take place on March 10. Christopher Nolan's atomic bomb biopic led the way with 13 nominations, followed by Yorgos Lanthimos' surreal "Poor Things" at 11 and Martin Scorsese's true crime epic, "Killers of the Flower Moon," at 10. 

From categories to controversies, acceptances to audiences, here’s our guide to everything you’ve ever wondered about the Academy Awards—and what you need to know to win one of your own.


How to qualify for an Oscar

OscarsCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

For a feature film to be eligible for an Academy Award, it must: 

  • Be more than 40 minutes long and “publicly exhibited by means of 35mm or 70mm film, or in a 24- or 48-frame progressive scan Digital Cinema format with a minimum projector resolution of 2048 by 1080 pixels.” 
  • Have been released publicly for at least seven consecutive days, with at least three showings on each day (between the hours of 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.) in one of the six qualifying U.S. markets, including Los Angeles County, New York City, the Bay Area, Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta. 
  • Have debuted during the previous calendar year (for the 96th ceremony, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2023)

How did the Oscar statuette get its name?

OscarFaheem Salimullah/Shutterstock

The origin of the nickname “Oscar” is murky, but there are three major theories: One is that Academy librarian and executive director Margaret Herrick dubbed the statuette as such because of its resemblance to her Uncle Oscar (who was actually her cousin, Oscar Pierce). The second is that gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky coined the term in 1934 as a reference to Broadway theater owner Oscar Hammerstein Sr. as a dig on the pretentiousness of the affair. The third claimant is Bette Davis, who said she coined the name in honor of her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson.

Who votes on Oscar nominees and winners?

Academy Awards telecastCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

Academy members decide the nominees and winners; there are approximately 9,500 voters in total. Members fit into 18 branches encompassing a variety of jobs in the industry, including actors, casting directors, designers, and members-at-large (those who are deemed worthy of who belong to the Academy but don’t fit within a designated box).

The AMPAS branches are: 

Oscars demographics

OscarsCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

As evidenced by the popularity of the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, the Academy doesn’t have a strong track record for diversity, neither in its membership nor in whom they nominate. And while AMPAS has since sought to diversify its makeup (which, in 2014, was 94% white and 76% male), by 2022, only 19% of the Academy’s overall membership were nonwhite, and only 33% were women.

However, some strides have been made. The 2019 ceremony broke the record for most Black winners in Oscars history. In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first-ever non–English language best picture winner. In 2021, “Nomadland” filmmaker Chloé Zhao became the second woman to be crowned best director. In 2022, Troy Kotsur of “CODA” was the first deaf male actor to receive a nomination (and a win)—and the second Oscar-nominated deaf performer ever, after his co-star Marlee Matlin (who won in 1987 for “Children of a Lesser God”). And in 2023, Lily Gladstone became the first Native American performer to be nominated for a best actress Oscar.

How does Oscars voting work?

Voting ballotI'm friday/Shutterstock

During the nomination phase, each member submits their choices within their branch along with their picks for best picture. If you are a member who doesn’t fall within a specific category, you only vote on best picture. Nomination voting takes place during a brief window—in 2024, Jan. 11–16. 

Once the nominees are announced, the Academy votes on best picture through a preferential-ballot system. Each member ranks the nominees from best to worst; if any film receives 50% of the votes right off the bat, that movie wins. If not, the one with the least amount of first-place votes is removed from the equation, and the process starts over until there is a consensus winner. For all other awards, each eligible member casts one vote per category. This process also takes place during a specified window—in 2024, Feb. 22–27.

When was the first Academy Awards?

OscarsFeatureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock

The first ceremony took place on May 16, 1929. The winner of that year’s outstanding picture award was William A. Wellman’s “Wings.” Unlike the following years, an actor could win for multiple films. Emil Jannings, for example, won best actor for his performances in “The Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh,” while Janet Gaynor took home best actress for “7th Heaven,” “Street Angel,” and "Sunrise.”

Who hosts the Oscars ceremony?

Oscars hostsCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

The Oscars are hosted by celebrities from the entertainment realm, whether they’re actors, comedians, or TV personalities. In its 96-year history, the ceremony has only gone without a host eight times, most recently in 2021. The 96th Academy Awards will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, returning to the job for the fourth time. 

Some past hosts include Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes (2022); two-time emcee Chris Rock, who in 2016 famously called out the Academy’s lack of diversity with the line,​​ “You’re damn right Hollywood is racist”; three-time host Steve Martin; Billy Crystal, who hosted nine times; Whoopi Goldberg, who emceed four times; and Bob Hope, who hosted a record 19 times.

Academy Awards controversies

Oscars controversiesCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

Despite (or perhaps because of) its inherent glitz and glamour, the ceremony is no stranger to scandal. Some of the more controversial moments include:

  • The slap heard ’round the world (2022): Will Smith stormed onstage and slapped presenter ixChris Rock after he made a joke at the expense of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. 
  • Best picture mix-up (2017): When the wrong envelope was brought onstage, presenter Warren Beatty announced Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” as the best picture honoree instead of the true winner, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” 
  • #OscarsSoWhite (2015): A lack of nominees of color led many to call out the Academy’s long-standing diversity issues. This remains a topic of discussion. 
  • The nude dude (1974): A streaker (later identified as photographer Robert Opel) ran behind co-host David Niven at the 46th Awards show, causing the audience to burst into laughter.
  • Marlon Brando’s no-show (1973): Brando didn’t come to the ceremony to accept the best actor statuette for “The Godfather.” Activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage in his place, refusing the award as a protest of Hollywood’s portrayals of Indigenous people.
  • Segregated seating and a disappearing award (1940): When Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Academy Award for her iconic role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” she was seated in a separate area from her white co-stars. Following her death in 1952, her Oscar mysteriously went missing. There wouldn’t be another Black winner until 1964, when Sidney Poitier took best actor for “Lilies of the Field.”

Academy Awards categories

OscarsCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

Currently, there are 24 categories in total:

  • Best picture
  • Performance by an actor in a leading role
  • Performance by an actress in a leading role
  • Performance by an actor in a supporting role
  • Performance by an actress in a supporting role
  • Animated feature film
  • Cinematography
  • Costume design
  • Directing
  • Original screenplay 
  • Adapted screenplay 
  • Original score 
  • Original song 
  • Documentary (feature)
  • Documentary (short subject)
  • Film editing
  • International feature film
  • Makeup and hairstyling
  • Production design
  • Short film (animated)
  • Short film (live action)
  • Sound editing
  • Sound mixing
  • Visual effects

The Academy also holds the Scientific and Technical Awards and the Governors Awards.

How to win an Oscar as an actor

OscarsCourtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

If there were a precise formula for earning an Academy Award, there would be no need for the guessing game that takes place every year. But the steps to a potential win are largely the same ones you would take on the road to getting your big break:

Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!