What really happens at the Oscars?

From the thousand dollar goodie bags to crying into burgers, our man reveals the behind-the-scenes reality of Tinseltown’s biggest night.

Sam Ronan February 25, 2016

The road to this year's Academy Awards has been paved with racial controversy. On the night itself, you can be sure there will be catfights over couture, politically-motivated voting and more parties than you can imagine.

Top Hollywood reporter Sam Ronan raided his little black book of industry insiders to find out what really happens at the Oscars. 


The venality of voting
Whoever said "politics is just acting for ugly people" might have been on to something. When it comes to getting yourself nominated for an Oscar, timing, money and politics is everything. Each year, Hollywood heavyweights – such as producers Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin – spend millions of dollars campaigning for their films to get nods, in the hope that it will expand their box office receipts and launch (or re-launch) the career of its star. At the same time, a select few "underdog" movies and stars can also creep through.

An insider who has covered the Academy voting system reveals: "Studios with the most money stand the best chance because they can afford to place huge ads in trade papers like The Hollywood Reporter, which the voters read. It becomes very aggressive and dirty tricks come into play. Often there's an underdog, be it a small movie or critically-acclaimed performance that creates a genuine buzz that's hard to kill – but you can bet that studio big wigs will do whatever it takes to get their movie and their star an award. 

Red carpet warzone
To many designers, the red carpet at the Oscars is considered the world's biggest catwalk so it's no surprise that everyone involved takes it very, very seriously. "Nobody wants to end up on the worst dressed list, or make a fool of themselves so every stylist in Hollywood is on tenterhooks leading up to the event," a stylist to the star reveals. "There are frantic last minute alterations to outfits taking place, deals with designers being made and lots of borrowing from boutique stores.” The stakes and the pressure are high for stylists. “A red carpet disaster can mean the end of their career working with the A-list," adds the insider.

Goodies and gifts
Last year's official Oscar goodie bag was valued at an astonishing $168,000, and is set to rise even further this year. The gift bags are put together by a special company and are made for the main players at the Oscars: the winners and nominees in the acting categories as well as producers and directors. This year they are expected to include luxury car rentals for a year, holidays, non-invasive plastic surgery treatments, and even designer furniture.

An insider reveals, "Some of the more generous stars will give the vacations to their staff, but other more frugal nominees have been known to keep all the goodies for themselves. Either way, despite the larger gifts being free, under the strict American tax regulations, all the gifts are taxable as income."

Meanwhile the 'gifting suites' take place in the build up to the ceremony and hope to lure Hollywood stars with the promise of freebies. An experienced party planner reveals, “The gifting suites are very corporate and it's all about making money. The celebrities don't get paid to attend, they come to these gifting suites to get free stuff. The unwritten rule is that they allow themselves to be photographed holding the product." 

Party politics
Despite the ruthless campaigning and actors talking very seriously about their "craft" – to many the Oscars is just one big party. Well, actually, it's more than just one. In the run up to the Academy Awards there can be anything up to 50 parties (including pre-parties). Some are the hottest ticket in town, while others the A-list wouldn’t be seen dead at.

The Holy Grail of Oscars parties is the Vanity Fair bash. Even Madonna, who hosts her own party at a private residence in the Hollywood Hills, will show up to this one. It is notoriously difficult for journalists or anyone else without a ticket to crash. An easier party at which to slip past security is Elton John’s AIDS Foundation Viewing Party, where one journalist managed to convince the lady on the door that she was Sharon Osbourne's other less-famous daughter Aimee Osbourne (who knows what she looks like anyway?).

The official Oscars party is the Governors Ball, which follows the last award of the night, and it's where you'll find the losers doing their best not to glare enviously at the shiny golden statues being paraded by the winners of the night.

Weinstein, Fox, Universal and other major studios also throw their own parties, the mood of which will depend on how many Oscars their movies have picked up. But the big stars will skip many of the pre-parties and corporate bashes and leave them to the TV acting crowd. 

On the night
The big night can start as early as 11am when the press and photography pens open at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, which has already been closed off for the ceremony. The unspoken rule is that the oldest and most dedicated outlets will get the best spots on the carpet. If you're a journalist or photographer who has suffered years of red carpet torture, the closer you'll get to the action. One journalist who covered the carpet for a major outlet for five years in a row found herself taken off the list when she missed one year due to being on holiday.

While there is the usual pushing and shoving between photographers and reporters, the difference is everyone is wearing evening wear, and trying to be on their best behaviour in front of Oscar organisers who don't tolerate the usual aggressive wrestling match that takes place at a premiere or the MTV Awards for example.

Many of the female reporters will have borrowed designer dresses for the evening and are exhausted when trying to crash Oscars parties afterwards. Some accept defeat and are seen grabbing fast food a block away on Sunset Boulevard. Two female journalists once told me they were "crying into their burgers" while wearing ballgowns at Mel's Diner after failing to sneak into the Vanity Fair party, and instead watched the ceremony on TV in their hotel room. 

Diet deadlines
Anyone who works in Hollywood will tell you that during awards season a strange mood sweeps over Tinseltown. You'll see actresses pushing around a salad on their plates, stressed writer-types spending overtime on the treadmill and both male and female stars getting any number of beauty treatments or procedures. The pressure to look good on the red carpet is brutal. Some stars are said to even rely heavily on anti-anxiety medication Xanax to help them cope with the pressure.

A Hollywood insider explains, "Most stars will have been on diets for three months before the ceremony to reach their 'Oscar weight' and will be running on empty. Thanks to social media and HD cameras their bodies are going to be on full display and some of them are just existing on juice diets." Of course, once it’s over most of the A-list stars can be seen stuffing their faces with an In-N-Out burger, which has a food truck parked outside the theatre.

The winners and (sour) losers
Play close attention to Leonardo DiCaprio's face this year. With four Oscar losses under his belt, he is widely tipped to find glory at long last for his role in The Revenant. Here are some of the world's best actors on the world's biggest stage, but many of them can still lose their cool under the pressure. Take last year for example when Michael Keaton jumped the gun by grabbing his acceptance speech only to lose to Eddie Redmayne, all of which was embarrassingly caught on camera.

An agent told me that any actor who said they didn't have a speech prepared is lying and that any actor worth his salt has practiced both his winner and loser face at least twice in their hotel room before arriving at the event. 

Host with the most
It is considered to be one of the most difficult and thankless gigs in Hollywood. However, every year someone is given the tasking of hosting the Oscars. The reason for many of them risking it all is the boost to their career if they get it right. One industry insider reveals, "Particularly for a comedian, if you get it right it can push you into legendary status. You can go from a media darling to a stadium headliner comedian if you can pull it off. Not just that, but many comedians want to be movie stars and so it’s a launching pad.

"However, it can also be the death knell of your career if you get it wrong. It's considered particularly risky when an older actor or celebrity whose star is on the wane tried to give it a go. A lot of the times it can be a desperate last role of the dice." 

Backstage blips
Thanks to it being a live television event the Oscars have seen dozens of gaffes, flubs and awkward moments over the years. Great entertainment for the viewing public, but a nightmare for the poor TV producers in the control booth. One Academy staffer tells me, "The Oscar tech team are under an incredible amount of pressure and backstage is chaotic. They do less than a month of rehearsals and it gets thrown together in a matter of weeks. 

Last-minute changes are constantly being made to the host's monologue, as well as the presenters’ lines. Sometimes mistakes can be made on the teleprompter which has explained previous gaffes." Also bear in mind that while there are many actors who are used to live theatre, some stars still get nervous with being on stage in front of a live audience. "Many stars freeze and panic, and end up mispronouncing the name of the film,” adds the insider. 

The morning after
With one big party comes an even bigger hangover, and one hell of a clean-up job. Oscar organisers use contract cleaners to help clean up the aftermath at the Dolby Theatre, and the same goes with every single party thrown, while the rest is left up to the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services to make sure Hollywood Boulevard (usually a pretty grubby tourist destination) is put back together again.

As for the stars and agents, a good percentage have already crawled back to their mansions in the Hills or to get straight on a long-haul flight somewhere to start filming their next project. However, the winners will be waking up to more than 300 congratulatory phone calls and emails, requests for interviews on morning television shows, talk show bookings, and the kind of movie deals that are only offered to the hot property of Hollywood – those who wake up with an Oscar on their bedside table.