The Oscars And Unions: The Awards Were Invented To Stop Labor Organization In Hollywood

By | January 9, 2020

The "Academy" was made up to sound academic

Presented every year to shine a light on the filmmakers who have created something truly special, the Academy Awards have morphed into a cultural barometer. However, that wasn't always the case. In 1927, MGM executive Louis B. Mayer was just trying to find a way to keep actors from unionizing. When he tried using film industry labor to build a new house for his family in Santa Monica, he found that the crew members were already unionized, and he feared that if actors did the same, they'd be able to get a cut of the film profits that he dearly loved.

Smart (and slick) cookie that Mayer was, he created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the purpose of mediating labor disputes between Hollywood workers without a union. Just to make sure his actors felt especially special, he put together the first Academy Awards ceremony to give creatives the illusion of recognition without paying them more, giving them health care, or doing anything actually, you know, helpful.

No longer a ceremony of placation, the Academy Awards are still going strong, and they're definitely still full of the kind of endearing quirks that you can only find in Hollywood.

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Everyone loves to hear how smart they are. If you ever want to win major brownie points with someone, just take a page from Louis B. Mayer's book and tell your friends that they're geniuses. If you feel like going the extra mile, build an entire "academy" in their honor. In 1927, Mayer was growing worried about labor disputes between actors and film studios, so he decided to form an organization that could handle thing internally while acting as a PR machine for La La Land.

Working with a few other film company big-wigs, Mayer decided that their organization didn't just need to sound official, it needed to have an air of class and distinction to it. The last thing Mayer wanted was his fly-by-night operation to sound like was a fly-by-night operation, so the group passed on their first idea (the University of Phoenix Online) and went with something more prestigious: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The name is perfect. It makes film sound like it's really important, like cancer research or figuring out why platypuses look like that.

The origin of the name "Oscar" is disputed

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The same year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was created, Louis B. Mayer decided to host a banquet and hand out some awards so it didn't just look like the cream of the crop was getting together to smoke cigars and talk shop. Mayer and the rest of the Academy decided to offer prizes for best picture, best actor, and the like so it was clear that the group was all about quality and not the bottom line.

The first few ceremonies actually didn't have a gold statue, but when the Academy decided that they should send the winners home with something so the whole thing felt like an actual award ceremony and not a trade show, they came up with a sketch of a man holding a sword to his feet, pinning down reels of film. Supposedly, Margaret Herrick, librarian to the Academy, said "It looks like my Uncle Oscar," but the anecdote has been attributed to a number of different actresses and other Hollywood figures over the years. Like many legends from the early days of cinema, the real story will likely never come to light.