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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

An A-Z of the Academy Awards

After what feels like a year’s worth of buzz, publicity, predictions, and celebrity gossip, the 87th Academy Award ceremony is upon us. I dug into the entries available in the alphabetized categories of The Dictionary of Film Studies — and added some of my own trivia — to highlight 26 key concepts in the elements of cinema and the history surrounding the Oscars.

A – Academy Awards

AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) is an honorary professional organization set up in 1927 to provide a support network for industry professionals and as a way of promoting the US film industry.

Winners of Academy Awards receive a gold-plated, Art Deco-style, statuette of a male figure holding a sword and standing on a reel of film with five spokes said to represent actors, writers, directors, producers, and technicians, the predominant trades of AMPAS members in the 1920s.

The Academy Awards have also been the site of controversy: George C. Scott refused the Best Actor award in 1970 for Patton, stating, ‘The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.’

B – Biopic

A film that tells the story of the life of a real person, often a monarch, political leader, or artist. Popular candidates for Best Picture. Four of the 2015 Best Picture nominees (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, and American Sniper) may be considered biopics.

C – Cannes

An international film festival is held here each spring, during which time a number of films are screened on successive days. The Cannes Film Festival, founded in 1946, is the world’s best‐known festival, with a range of international films submitted for competition and screening.

Film festivals are a major marketplace for producers and distributors from around the world; many films are made with the explicit aim of being ‘discovered’ at a festival. Winners and nominees tend to be inspiration for Oscar nominations the following year.

D – Director

Arguably, one of the six top awards at the Academy Awards ceremony (the others being Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Picture). A director guides the creative and stylistic elements of the filmmaking process within an environment of skilled and talented collaborators. While direction plays a decisive role in the filmmaking process, the authority of the role is often overstated in popular culture (because films are promoted through named directors)

American film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at 2010 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (2010). Photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
American film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at 2010 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (2010). Photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

E – Editing

An Academy Award for Editing honors the creative work beyond assembling the separate pieces of film. Editing is complex process informing decisions about what setups, shots, and scenes to shoot, and which of these will be included in the final film and in what order.

The work of editing has often been the province of women: Elisaveta Svilova edited Dziga Vertov’s films, for example, and Esfir Shub is known for documentary films composed almost wholly of intricately edited archival material. American editor Thelma Schoonmaker has worked with Martin Scorsese for over thirty-five years, receiving three Academy Awards for best editing for Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006).

The nominees for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Film Editing include American Sniper (Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach), Boyhood (Sandra Adair), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Barney Pilling), The Imitation Game (William Goldenberg), and Whiplash (Tom Cross).

F — Foreign Film

Non-Hollywood, or non-Western, or non-mainstream films. While some non-US films have been nominated for Best Picture in the past (e.g. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle), most nominees fall into the Foreign Film category. A good deal of recent and current work in this area focuses on China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, whose cinemas have become increasingly visible and popular in the West.

G – Gangster Film

Aspects of the gangster film surface in Hollywood genres of the 1940s and 1950s and continued to be made into the 1960s. A few notable films that fell into this category, including Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (1972–90), received immense critical acclaim leading to Academy Award nominations and wins.

H – Hollywood

  1. A district of Los Angeles, California with historical and continued associations with the US film industry
  2. A general term denoting the entire phenomenon of popular entertainment cinema, or a synonym for the film industry, in the US.

The Academy Awards ceremony has always been held in Los Angeles. Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood) and Nollywood (Nigeria + Hollywood) describe the cinemas of India and Nigeria respectively and produce a tremendous number of films every year.

I — Independent Cinema

Initially, only a small number of “independent films” experienced the kind of Academy Award success of Hollywood’s big budget films. But a number of well-known, award-winning US directors have made the move from independent films to semi-independent: David Lynch, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater, whose Boyhood is nominated for several Academy Awards this year, for example. Indeed, Woody Allen, one of the US’s best-known directors, has made over 40 independent features since the late 1960s.

Red carpet at 81st Annual Academy Awards in Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles (2009). Photo by Greg in Hollywood (Greg Hernandez). CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Red carpet at 81st Annual Academy Awards in Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles (2009). Photo by Greg in Hollywood (Greg Hernandez). CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

J — Journalism

Pejoratively, a form of entertainment that reports the sensational or lurid aspects of news and also gossip about celebrities (see also sensationalism). An unfortunate but prevalent part of the Academy Award hype, particularly in terms of coverage of Red Carpet Fashions.

K — Kung Fu

The martial arts film has long attracted audiences worldwide and exerted influence on the cinemas of other countries. Most recently, the Matrix franchise (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999–2003) employed Hong Kong martial artist Yuen Wo Ping to choreograph its many action sequences. The Best Picture winner in 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) is a self-conscious return to the wu xia origins of the genre.

L — Literary Adaptation

A pre-existing work, often literary or theatrical, that has been made into a film. More commercial properties such as musical theatre, best-selling fiction and non-fiction, comic books, and so on, are also regularly adapted for the cinema.

It is claimed that adaptations account for up to 50% of all Hollywood films and are consistently rated amongst the highest grossing at the box office, as aptly demonstrated by the commercial success of recent adaptations of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. The top screenplays based off of a previously published work are honored with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. 2015 nominees include American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.

M – Music

A central component of a film’s soundtrack, including the score and any other musical elements. While there is not explicitly an Academy Award for “soundtrack” the Best Song category has drawn attention in recent years.

From the late 1970s it became common to appoint a music supervisor to handle the placement and copyright clearance of licensed music, as, for example, with music producer Phil Ramone’s work on Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983).

N — New Hollywood

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) are important films in marking Hollywood’s new direction. Both achieved box-office success (and Oscar nods) by disregarding stylistic convention, showing characters rebelling against the mainstream, refusing happy endings, and harnessing the sensationalism of the exploitation film.

During this period, a new generation of creative talent entered the industry, including such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Paul Schrader, and Terrence Malick. These directors, along with rising actors such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda, appealed to the youth audience. All have been recognized by the Academy over the course of their careers.

CHICAGO - JANUARY 23: Oscar statuettes are displayed during an unveiling of the 50 Oscar statuettes to be awarded at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony January 23, 2004 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. The statuettes are made in Chicago by R.S. Owens and Company. (Photo by Tim Boyle) © EdStock via iStock.
CHICAGO – JANUARY 23: Oscar statuettes are displayed during an unveiling of the 50 Oscar statuettes to be awarded at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony January 23, 2004 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. The statuettes are made in Chicago by R.S. Owens and Company. (Photo by Tim Boyle) © EdStock via iStock.

O — Oscar

The Oscars are an informal name for Academy Award statuettes, prizes awarded annually for services to the cinema by the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The award ceremony is held in the spring following the relevant year. The gold-plated bronze statuettes stand 25cm (13.5in) high.

Why is it called an “Oscar”? There are some speculations…

P — Performance

A term commonly used to describe the work of acting, with the actor or the film star said to have given a remarkable performance, for example. A Best Actor and Actress announcement is described as “the best performance by an actress in a leading role.” Among 2015’s nominees, Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore are tipped to win on Sunday.

Q — Queer Cinema

The term, conceived initially in film studies scholarship, has extended to more mainstream films, such as The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, Australia/UK, 1994), Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberley Peirce, US, 1999), Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, US, 2002), and Ang Lee’s highly successful queer western, Brokeback Mountain (US, 2005). All of these films have received recognition from the Academy.

R — Release Strategy

The way in which a distributor chooses to ‘open’ a film, i.e. make it available to the audience. Based on the Summer Blockbuster successes, and the December 31 deadline for Feature film Academy Award nominations, the Fall and Winter tend to be seasons when “Oscar hopefuls” are released.

S — Short Film

A broad category of films defined by their short running time in comparison with that of the feature film. For the purposes of the ‘Animated Short Film’ and ‘Live Action Short Film’ categories in the Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a short film as 40 minutes or less.

Filmmakers working in the short film format generally rely on competitions and film festivals to get their work seen.

T — Titanic

Nominated for 14 and winning 11, Titanic made Oscar History at the 1997 ceremony. Everything in director James Cameron’s previous career has now been surpassed by the extraordinary tour-de-force of Titanic (1997), which set a new budget record, proved cinema’s biggest ever success at the box office, and won eleven Oscars, thereby equalling the record of Ben Hur in 1960.

U — US Film

In the 2010s Hollywood continues to dominate cinema screens worldwide and remains an avowedly commercial cinema now geared to the production of high concept blockbuster films designed to exploit multimedia platforms and sell through to global markets.

Many of the major studios have also set up semi-independent production companies that provide a space for directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen Brothers to make challenging films with mid-range budgets. These films are popular contenders for Oscar nominations which drives publicity and ticket sales.

Diagram of a VHS tape. Image by Asenine; derivative of work by StG1990. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Diagram of a VHS tape. Image by Asenine; derivative of work by StG1990. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

V — VHS

The creation of VHS lead to increased awareness on a global scale of the films nominated for awards. In the 1980s, the adoption and use of this home video technology became widespread. VCRs had a significant impact on the ways films were viewed: films broadcast on television could be recorded and viewed at a later date, for example, and films could be rented or purchased for home viewing.

W — Women and Film

Only four female directors have been nominated for Best Director. Most recently, The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) won Best Picture, but Bigelow lost to Danny Boyle.

In 2015, Daisy Jacobs, director of The Bigger Picture, is nominated for Short Film – Animated.

X  — X-Rated Film

In 1990, the MPAA introduced NC-17 in an attempt to reduce the stigma attached to the X rating, which had been in use since 1968 and which for many had become synonymous with pornography. Distributors of X-rated titles, including non-pornographic films such as Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), could not secure advertising on television or in the popular press. Midnight Cowboy remains the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture. 

Y — Yes, But Also…

In all this talk about Hollywood commercialism, it would be an oversight not to mention another mainstream cinema giant whose films have steadily trickled into the Academy Award nominee pool: Bollywood. Its influence is apparent in such recent western-made films as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Z — Zoom Shot

A zoom in can be effective in rapidly and dramatically drawing the viewer into a scene or bringing the viewer’s attention to a detail; and a zoom out in revealing the background and the surroundings of a character or activity. Keep an eye out for these when the Oscar clips at the ceremony start rolling…

Headline image credit: CHICAGO – JANUARY 23: Oscar statuettes are displayed during an unveiling of the 50 Oscar statuettes to be awarded at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony January 23, 2004 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. The statuettes are made in Chicago by R.S. Owens and Company. (Photo by Tim Boyle) © EdStock via iStock.

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