Oscar: Award Categories

The number of award categories has changed over the years, reflecting developments within the film industry, such as the advent of sound and color. In 1927-8, all the nominees for the first Best Picture were silent films–the winner was Wings–and only one award was given to a “talkie.”

In the first year, there were eleven categories: Actor, Actress, Director of Drama, Director of Comedy, Outstanding Picture (Producer), Outstanding Quality (Production Company), Original Screenplay, Adaptation of Story, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Engineering Effects. The writers branch established three categories: Best Original Story, Best Adaptation, and Title Writing.

The production awards distinguished between the Best Producer, “who produced the most outstanding motion picture, considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness,” and Best Production Company, “which produced the most artistic, unique, and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude.” As for acting, members were asked to choose the best performance, “with special reference to character portrayal and effectiveness of dramatic or comedy rendition.”

In the second year (1928-29), awards were given in only seven categories. The distinction between the direction of a comedy and a drama was dropped as well as that between original and adapted screenplay. And there was no longer differentiation between Best Producer and Best Production Company–the top award was named Best Picture. In the third year, Sound Recording and ScientificTechnical Achievement were added.

In the fourth year (1930-31), the writing award was divided again into Original Story and Adaptation.

By 1934, the number of categories had increased to thirteen, with new areas for Editing, Short Subjects, and Music. In the following year, due to the popularity of the musical films, a new category was created to honor Dance Direction.

Acting Categories

For close to a decade, there were only two acting categories: Best Actor and Best Actress. In 1936, the Academy decided to create two more divisions: Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, which required new rules to distinguish between lead and supporting performances.

In keeping abreast of the advent of color, the Cinematography and Art Direction Awards were subdivided in 1939 into blackandwhite and color. The first winners in these areas were Gregg Toland for his distinguished blackandwhite cinematography in Wuthering Heights, and Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan for their color work in Gone With the Wind.

The largest number of awards bestowed by the Academy was in 1956, with twenty-seven categories, including Best Foreign-Language Film, which became a regular annual rather than special category.

In 1957, the Academy eliminated Best Scoring of a Musical, due to the genre’s decline, and several other categories. The tendency was toward compressing categories, keeping the number of awards to a minimum.

1967’s Turning Point

A major change occurred in 1967, when the duplicate awards in Art Direction, Set Decoration, and Cinematography, previously given for black-and-white and color, was discontinued. The feeling was that these awards would be more prestigious and meaningful if there would be only one system, though it made the competition in these categories much more intense.

Achievements in Makeup were given for the first time in 1982, after a lengthy battle by makeup artists. In previous years, honorary awards were given to makeup artists, such as William Tuttle for Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, in 1964, and John Chambers for Planet of the Apes, in 1968, but there was no regular award. A competitive category was established following the Academy’s failure to honor the makeup achievement in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

For a few years, there was a distinction between Original Musical/Comedy Score and Original Dramatic Score, but in 1999, it was abolished.


The new award category is animation. The only animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 1991. In December 2001, nine animated pictures were declared eligible for the first new Oscar category in 20 years: feature-length animation. The contenders were: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu, Monsters, Inc., Osmosis Jones, The Prince of Light, Shrek, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Waking Life. An Academy committee then pared the list down to three nominations: Shrek, Jimmy Neutron, and Monsters, Inc.

For decades, the term “animated film” referred to traditional cel animation, but the contenders proved that the definition now is much broader. The nine features offered a wide range of styles, with only two completely cel-animated: Marco Polo and Trumpet of the Swan. Computer animation is represented by Jimmy Neutron, Monsters,Inc. and Shrek. Final Fantasy is a hotorealistoc computer-animated toon, while Osmosis blends live-action sequences with cel animation.

The toons were viewed by a 100-member screening committee chaired by Academy governor Tom Hanks. The committee members–half animators, half members of Academy’s other branches–determined the nominees, which were announced on February 12, 2002, along with the other contenders. Academy President Frank Pierson suggested to the committee to consider all elements of the film, not just animation work, but also script, performances, score, etc. Films submitted in the animated feature category also qualify for Academy awards in other areas, including Best Picture, provided they meet the criteria governing those categories.

At present, merit awards are conferred in twentyfour categories: Picture, Director, four acting awards (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress), Animated Feature, Foreign-Language Picture, two writing (Original Screenplay and Adaptation), two documentary (Feature and Short Subject), two music (Original Score and Original Song), two shortfilm awards (Animated and Live Action), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects, Visual Effects, and Makeup.