Oscars 2021: Secrets of the Academy Awards from six-figure gift bags to 'seat fillers' packing the audience

"I'D like to thank my family, my agent, and the hundreds of volunteers scattered throughout the audience for making my Oscar win possible."

It's unlikely anyone's going to be spilling the Oscars' secrets in an acceptance speech at this weekend's bash — but behind all the glitz and glamour there is plenty viewers don't get to see.

This year's Academy Awards will work slightly differently to those in years gone by due to the pandemic.

Awards will be presented at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles as usual, but an additional 20 venues around the world will also host stars who are unable to travel to the US.

It's also just the fourth time in history the ceremony, which usually goes out in late February, has been delayed.

Previous postponements were due to flooding in LA in 1938; the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King in 1968; and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But despite the disruption, some secrets of the ceremony haven't changed — from the studios' multi-million dollar lobbying campaigns to celebs' wildly expensive goody bags.

Secret agent seat fillers

If you've ever noticed that there are never any empty seats for even a second in the audience at the Oscars, that's not an accident.

While it may miraculously seem as though none of the champagne-swilling stars ever need the loo during the hours-long ceremony, in truth they go all the time — it's just that their seats are occupied by someone else when they do spend a penny.

Volunteers are brought in to fill any vacant seats, presenting TV viewers with the illusion that the theatre audience is always full.

While the seat fillers don't get paid, they do get to spend the evening cosying up to A-listers.

There are typically around 300 seat fillers in tuxedos and evening gowns ready to swap places with celebs during ad breaks.

The golden rule for the volunteers is that, when the broadcast resumes, all seat fillers should either be in a seat or off-camera in the wings of the theatre.

And when there's hundreds of people to coordinate in a tense game of musical chairs, things don't always go to plan.

One woman who worked as a seat filler at the 1996 ceremony says she got caught out when one seat was assigned to two volunteers, and she couldn't make it back to the wings in time.

"I had to drop, and I happened to drop on Robin Williams’ feet,” she told Refinery29.

“Robin thought was the funniest thing he had ever seen.

"He was poking my thigh and back and laughing hysterically about it."

Voters don't watch all the films

Arguably the most shocking secret of the Oscars is how the winners get picked — with some voters previously admitting they didn't even watch the films.

To be able to have a say in who wins what, you need to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas).

If you want to become a member, you need feature film credits and then approval from executive committees within Ampas.

Last year, there were around 9,500 eligible Oscars voters, each of whom belong to one of Ampas' 17 professional branches.

Each branch then votes for its own category nominees, so editors nominate editors, and actors nominate for the four acting categories, and so on.

Everyone gets to nominate for best picture and, once the nominees are established, all branches vote on the final winner of all categories.

The problem with the system, according to some critics, is that it means many of the people voting don't watch the films they're supposed to be judging, with an estimated 60 hours of viewing time required to see all of the candidates proving too much for some.

One poll by the Hollywood Reporter found that six per cent of voters admitted they didn't watch the Best Picture nominees in 2015, while others say there's no way Ampas can ensure all voters have watched all the films.

Carey Mulligan, who's up for Best Actress for her role in Promising Young Woman at this year's awards, has demanded change.

"Maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to vote unless you can prove you’ve seen every single one," she told Variety last year.

"There should be a test."

Influence campaigns

Because the winners are chosen by Ampas members, film studios hoping their films get picked spend a fortune trying to influence the voters.

And because the prestige of winning an Oscar boosts a film's audience tremendously, studios are prepared to use aggressive tactics to make sure their productions are favoured.

Last year, Netflix alone was estimated to have spent well over $100million on awards campaigns for their films, focusing mostly on The Irishman and Marriage Story, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Scott Stuber, Netflix's head of original films, said its awards spending was "very smart" but that the $100million estimate was an exaggeration.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything that everyone else isn’t doing,” he added.

Less wealthy studios are thought to typically spend between $5million and $20million on individual films' award campaigns.

As well as taking out adverts, studios fly actors and directors all over the world to do Q&As at screenings in a bid to woo voters.

But of course, spending tens of millions in the awards campaign arms race is still no guarantee that you'll actually win.

Gold-plated gift bags

Even if you don't win on the night, you might not be going home empty handed.

That's because nominees in the acting and directing categories are given gift bags which are worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The swag is assembled and distributed by celebrity and product-placement marketing company Distinctive Assets and has become the stuff of legend.

Last year's goody bag was worth $225,000 and featured a 12-day cruise worth $78,190 aboard a Butler-serviced yacht, a romantic getaway in a Spanish lighthouse that charges $1,800 a night, and a a $150 gold-plated vape pen.

It also contained a medical urine collection system that claims to improve the accuracy of testing for infections.

And there was also a smart bra that measures women for the ideal fit.

This year, the bag includes a Peta emergency hammer to save dogs trapped in hot cars, Cozy Earth loungewear made from sustainably sourced silk and bamboo, Loci sneakers made from re-purposed plastic, a Ryst Mask face mask which is also a wristband, socks from London Sock Company, and an anti-racism children’s book Change-Maker Village. 

Emergency envelopes

All eyes are on the Oscars' famous envelopes on the night — but you might not know there are actually three sets.

The idea is that each award has one main envelope containing the winner's name, with another identical backup kept in the wings.

A third "emergency" copy is kept at an undisclosed location until the first two sets are confirmed to have arrived safely at the ceremony.

While the extra security measures sound sensible, they led to one of the most embarrassing howlers in the awards' history in 2017.

Bonnie and Clyde stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway incorrectly announced that La La Land had won Best Picture after they were handed the wrong envelope before walking out on stage.

They were given the backup envelope announcing Emma Stone as the Best Actress winner for her performance in La La Land, and erroneously read the name of the film out in the confusion.

It was only once the cast and crew of La La Land were on stage that it was determined that they'd been announced as the winners in error, and that Moonlight was the real Best Picture winner.

PwC, the accounting firm responsible for tabulating the award votes and preparing the envelopes, apologised for the mistake.

Pre-engraved plaques

If you've ever wondered how the engravers manage to correctly label all the Oscar statuettes so quickly on the night, the truth is that they don't.

Instead, they pre-engrave the name of every single nominee in every category on to plaques before the ceremony even begins.

After the ceremony, celebrities make their way upstairs to the Governors Ball where engravers show them the plaque, make sure the details are correct, and then fit it to the statuette.

Alex Yust, who gives the assembled awards to recipients, says the whole process of fitting the plaque, polishing it, and handing it back to the winner only takes about five minutes.

"One of my most memorable encounters was with Colin Firth, who had won best actor for The King’s Speech," Yust told The Guardian.

"He took my arm in his and asked if he could take a picture of me with his phone while I attached his plaque. He was so gracious and polite.

"Anne Hathaway cracked me up. She put her hand on mine as I was attaching her plaque, then asked my name.

"She said, 'I will never forget it.' I’m sure she has."

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