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Here on the internet, people usually think of the awards presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as "that thing where Billy Crystal does a musical medley, runs overtime and has even made a cliche of lampshading that fact, snubbedThe Dark Knight, and Pulp Fiction for best picture, gave that award to only one of the The Lord of the Rings films, left Harry Potter empty handed and thought TRON was 'cheating' by using CGI".
First of all, that implies that "True Art Is Nerdy", and we shouldn't go there. Second of all, there is a lot more to the Academy Awards than that. Of note though, BeforeA New Hope at least four of the five nominees for Best Picture were in the top-ten grossing pictures of that year. The auteur movement of the 1970s caused a separation of 'art' and 'popular'. Though Star Wars WAS still nominated for Best Picture, it lost the Oscar to Annie Hall. From then on, it was only rarely that a top-grossing film was also a nominee. Notable Exceptions were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982, Rain Man in 1988, Forrest Gump in 1994, Titanic in 1997, The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2001-2003, Avatar in 2009, and Inception and Toy Story 3 in 2010.
Admittedly, the award, known as The Oscar (the event itself wasn't officially named The Oscars until the 2013 ceremony), seems like just a way for Hollywood to suck up to itself, but its purpose was originally to encourage better filmmaking as well as promote the industry. The Academy is not actually a school, but a collection of people in the film industry that is dedicated to the advancement of films. Again, The Oscar was meant to help that along. (It's no coincidence that many nominated films — especially the more obscure ones — receive DVD and Blu-ray release within days of the ceremony, win or lose.)
It's just that from the beginning, everyone knew the prestige it would hold, and the various forms of Oscar Bait almost immediately followed.
Related tropes include Oscar Bait, Vindicated by History, and a great deal of Award Snub. Mostly, it's another Award Show — albeit the most famous. For tropes about the award presenting show itself, see Academy Awards Ceremonies.
The following are some specific historical retrospectives concerning certain practices of the academy:
There was no "Best Picture Award" given, but instead, two oddly redundant awards—Most Outstanding Production, which went to Wings, and Most Unique and Artistic Quality of Production, which went to Sunrise. After that first ceremony the Unique and Artistic Quality award was discontinued and a single Best Production Award was instituted, with the name later changed to Best Picture. Wings is often listed as the sole "Best Picture" winner at the first ceremony. (Both categories are included in the list below).
Winners were announced in advance, for the only time.
Runner-up awards were given, for the only time.
An award for Best Title Writing was given out. With the silent film era rapidly drawing to a close, the award was never given again.
Two Best Director awards were given, one for drama and one for comedy. Starting with the second Oscars only one directing award was given out.
For each of the first three Academy Awards, the Best Actor and Best Actress awards were given for the best body of work within a year, rather than for an individual performance.
In the 2009 Oscars, the late Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, a first for a superhero film, and sparking a debate about whether Dead Artists Are Better. Ledger was only the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar, the first being Peter Finch, Best Leading Actor, who won at the 1977 ceremony for Network. Curiously, both actors were Australian.
As evidenced by The Return Of The King's sweep, the Academy is willing to give a serious look to non-mundane films as worthy of the Academy's highest honors in writing and directing in addition to the technical awards which such films can usually garner (although the fact The Lord of the Rings had such a significant pedigree before being adapted probably didn't hurt matters much). Although the Academy was knocked for not awarding the first two films in the trilogy similar honors, King's sweep is almost universally considered a recognition of the complete trilogy, as opposed to simply one film.
Animated works have also undergone a major transformation. Back when studios still had theater cartoons, the Animated Short Subject feature was an award which studios clamored for. These days, animated works are most likely to be avant-garde subjects which most people are unlikely to ever see (unless, of course, the studio that produced them later becomes very famous) aside from the festival circuit. A Best Animated Film category was introduced in 2001 that allowed high-profile cartoons such as Shrek and Toy Story 3 a chance to be honored without the potential "embarrassment" of an animated film being nominated for Best Picture, as Disney's Beauty and the Beast was in the early 1990s.
Since 1945, the Best Picture Oscar has gone to the film that simply received the most votes; starting with the 2010 Academy Awards, the Academy returned to the original voting format: voters rank the nominated films from best to worst, and then the votes will be tallied up to determine which film wins the award. One could argue that this was done to ensure that all of the nominated films will be on a level playing field and (along with the extra five nominations) help to placate the people who complained about the Best Picture snubs from the 2009 awards.
The award for Best Documentary Feature has also suffered from having a rather strange definition — documentaries can be disqualified for airing on TV too soon as well as for involving the use of too much archival footage. This says nothing about the fact that until Bowling for Columbine won in 2002, it was fairly rare for any Academy Award-winning documentaries to be available to the common public at all. Five of the six winners before Bowling for Columbine all involved Jews being killed as a result of antisemitism. Not That There's Anything Wrong with That (the films that is, not antisemitism), but people would raise eyebrows if this were the topic of the Best Picture nominee with that kind of frequency. Before that, there was the Hoop Dreamssnub of 1994.
Since Bowling for Columbine, though, the award has come under the same scrutiny as most other major categories, and most winners, while not all are as famous as An Inconvenient Truth or March of the Penguins, can usually be found at your local video store.
The nature of the category also allows for some oddities, such as installments of non-American television series being nominated as long as the documentaries haven't aired in the US; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation current affairs program The Fifth Estate received several such nominations as a result.
The Foreign Language film category is also notorious for extremely complicated rules and a country can only submit one film to the Academy for nomination consideration. It's also subject to the rules about television airings; Japan wanted to submit Shall We Dance? in 1997, but it had already had a TV airing in its home country and was disqualified. (They submitted Princess Mononoke instead; it didn't get a nomination.)
Until 2010, no woman had ever won the Best Director award. Kathryn Bigelow was the first, winning for The Hurt Locker — beating out her ex-husband, James Cameronnote Cameron had already won three Oscars for Titanic. (for Avatar) in the process. Both the Animation Age Ghetto and Sci Fi Ghetto were ignored this year, as Up, Avatar and District 9 were all up for Best Picture. That said, the "blockbuster rule" prevailed—Avatar only won three technical awards, while The Hurt Locker became the lowest-grossing movie to ever win Best Picture.
As of 2013, AMPAS has retired the name "Academy Awards", referring to the ceremony only as "The Oscars". It also, at least for the 2013 awards, no longer numbers the ceremony.
Films with Best Picture wins or nominations and pages on this wiki include:
Sunrise (Unique and Artistic Production) (1927-28 winner)
Chang (Unique and Artistic Production) (1927-28 nominee)
The Crowd: (Unique and Artistic Production): (1927-28 nominee)