One of the most fascinating and important aspects of the Academy Awards gets hardly any news coverage: the rules governing eligibility and voting.
Oscar rules have changed and evolved in the last 85 years, along with the industry the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors. Every year, the academy fine-tunes the process.
For instance, any performance can be nominated for either leading or supporting role, but if it places among the top five in both, the academy permits nomination in only one. That restriction resulted from Barry Fitzgerald being nominated as both actor and supporting actor in 1944's "Going My Way." (He won best supporting actor; Bing Crosby won best actor for the same film.)
That part of the rule certainly makes sense, but the way the final category is determined doesn't. As the votes are tallied, the first category in which the role receives the required number of votes becomes the nominated category. So a performer could conceivably wind up with more votes as actress but get the nomination as supporting actress because the qualifying threshold was reached there first.
An even less reasonable acting award rule states that a performer can receive only one nomination per category. I suppose they thought that competing against oneself would mean a win for neither role and that the more names among the nominees the better. Still, the rule prevents someone like Jessica Chastain, who appeared in six films in 2011 but received a nomination only for "The Help," from getting all the credit she deserves
The regulations for documentary features are even less fair. Regular feature films (And did you know that anything over 40 minutes is a feature film for the academy?) must have a commercial run of at least seven days in Los Angeles County and be advertised in print media there. But a documentary feature must have one-week runs both in Los Angeles County and in Manhattan. It has to screen twice a day, and the rules specify in which papers it must advertise and in which it must be reviewed! Getting a documentary made is hard enough, but getting it qualified for an Oscar can be well-nigh impossible.
The added conditions for this less glamorous category reflect a general quirk in the rules: namely, the less familiar the average viewer might be with a category, the more complex the rules governing it. So, while there are seven paragraphs in the rules governing the four acting categories and three for directing, there are eight for sound mixing and nine (with eight subparagraphs) for visual effects.
Keeping up with changing technology presents real challenges. For the current year, subparagraph 2b of the eligibility rule states that motion pictures must be "publicly exhibited by means of 35mm or 70mm film, or " and then goes on for another 140 words specifying various digital and audio formats. The way technology is evolving these days, they will probably be revising this rule every year or two.
Even so, rule changes escape most viewers except when they affect whole categories — adding, eliminating or renaming them or changing the number of entries allowed in them.
Recently, the academy made a very noticeable amendment to the number of best picture nominations in response to an obvious oversight and subsequent negative publicity.
Christopher Nolan's Batman saga "The Dark Knight" became 2008's top-grossing film, received wide critical acclaim (82 on Metacritic, 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and garnered eight Oscar nominations — but not a best picture nomination.
The next year the rules were changed to allow up to 10 nominees in the best picture category. Last year, viewers who were keeping track might have been puzzled to see only nine picture nominees. That resulted from this sentence in the rule governing the category: "There may not be more than 10 nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than 5 percent of the total votes cast." So last year, only nine films each received more than 5 percent of the vote.
Again, that's not an unreasonable rule. From 1931 through '43, there were eight to 12 best picture nominees each year. And for several of those years there were only three nominees in the directing and acting categories.
But this wording includes a math oversight. It is theoretically possible, say, for four films to each garner 20 percent of the votes and five to get 4 percent each, which would force the academy to violate one of the rule's two clauses.
That's admittedly a long shot, but something else went wrong this year. With 10 best picture nominees but only five directing nominees, the chances are increased that the best picture may not be directed by the best director. That has already happened about 25 percent of the time — but only twice when the director of the best picture was not a directing nominee.
This year, the odds-on favorite for best picture is "Argo" — all the oddsmakers rank it first. But Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for directing. Yet he has already won four other awards for directing "Argo," including the Golden Globe and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Oscar equivalent.
So if "Argo" does win best picture this year, you can expect some irony in the acceptance speeches (Affleck also produced "Argo," and best picture Oscars go to producers). Also anticipate a lot of buzz about further tinkering with guidelines, though the academy might well be reluctant to increase the potential number of directing nominees, fearing that would bring pressure to swell the number of nominees in the other categories as well.
And at that point just reading all the nominees' names would add too many minutes to the already bloated Oscarcasts.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this column included incorrect information about "Brokeback Mountain," (2005) which was nominated for best picture.