The Academy began transitioning from a quasi-union to an awards giver in May 1928 when a committee began exploring what was then called “Awards of Merit.”
Two months later, 12 categories and a voting system had been established. The first Academy Awards were held May 16, 1929, at a banquet (pictured – menu) in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room to honor the best films of 1927 & ’28. Douglas Fairbanks hosted and 270 guests paid $5 apiece for tickets to a 15-minute ceremony! The awards, not yet nicknamed “Oscars,” were designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by George Stanley.
There was no suspense because all the winners had been announced 3 months earlier. There actually were 2 Best Pictures — Fox’s drama SUNRISE, from acclaimed German director F. W. Murnau, won “Unique & Artistic Picture” and Paramount’s aerial war drama WINGS, from Hollywood action director William Wellman, won “Outstanding Picture.”
Those twin Best Picture categories were meant to recognize the value of both art-house & mainstream films. A year later, however, the Academy dropped “Unique” in favor of its more commercial “Outstanding” award. In recent years, however, the Oscar pendulum has swung in favor of art films, making it all but impossible for big mainstream movies to get into the Best Picture race.