The Anti-Labor Origins of the Oscars

Last night, Hollywood literally rolled out the red carpet in celebration of the previous year’s movies. The 92nd Academy Awards took place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, and if you watched last night, you’re one of the millions who tuned in. (If not, and want a list of the winners, you can find that here.)

It makes a lot of sense, in retrospect at least, for the movie industry to host such a spectacle. If nothing else, the attention that the Oscars bring to the nominated movies is welcome — it leads to increased interest in the films which, of course, leads to more money. And if you assumed that the Academy Awards exists to get that PR and marketing buzz, you’re probably not alone. But you aren’t right. The Awards exist because one of the early, great movie execs really hated having to pay a bit more to build a beach house.

That executive was Louis B. Mayer, who co-founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) in 1924. Mayer took some liberties as the leader of MGM; later in the decade, when he wanted a beach home in Santa Monica, he decided to hire MGM’s craftsmen to do the work. Mayer figured he could save money on the deal but the opposite turned out to be true — MGM just entered into a labor agreement with the construction union, and the work that would have been performed at Mayer’s home-to-be was covered by that agreement. Mayer ended up hiring non-union labor for the vast majority of the work, avoiding that cost, but he learned a lesson from the moment: labor unions were costing him a lot of money. And he didn’t want the actors, screenwriters, directors, etc. unionizing.

Mayer’s solution had two parts. In 1927, he formed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). He wasn’t trying to professionalize the industry, though — he was trying to get ahead of unionization by, effectively, starting the union himself. As Hyperallergic explains, Mayer “[established] the first major consensus between studio producers and unions” and, in doing so, created “a space to negotiate hours, wages, benefits, and rehash grievances.” But because Mayer and his cohorts ran the Academy, the were able to control the negotiations much more than they would have otherwise. Per Hyperallergic, Mayer’s formation of the Academy “sterilized a would-be revolutionary moment in Hollywood” by beating the workers to the punch.

And then, Mayer’s new Academy created the Academy Awards. But the Oscars, as they’re colloquially called, weren’t a celebration — they were the other major part of Mayer’s plan to further assure that Hollywood’s talent wouldn’t come together and rise up against the studios. If the actors et al were competing against each other for golden statuettes, he surmised, they’d be dissuaded from banding together. Or, as Mayer once stated (per ABC News), “I found that the best way to handle them was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.” 

Whether Mayer’s plan worked is debatable — actors formed the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 and directors formed the Director’s Guild of America three years later, raising wages and improving working conditions along the way. Either way, though, the millions of fans who turned in last night are the true winners: the Academy Awards have kept going despite the fact that their original purpose is no longer relevant.

Bonus fact: One of the trademark features of award shows, and the Academy Awards in particular, is the sealed envelope which holds the award winner’s name inside. That’s a good way to keep the winner secret until the ceremony, but it wasn’t the original way the Academy handled things. Per the official Oscars website, starting in the ceremony’s second year, the Academy “kept the results secret but gave an advance list to newspapers for publication at 11 p.m.” But in the 1940s, the Los Angeles Times published the list early, effectively telling attendees who the winners were before the ceremony even took place. AMPAS switched to the sealed envelope system, with no advance information provided to newspapers, shortly thereafter.

From the Archives: Oscar de la Rental: Want to sell your Oscar statuette? Good luck with that.