When MGM’s Louis B. Mayer announced the formation on Jan. 11, 1927, of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, it wasn’t meant to give awards.
What Mayer wanted was a way to mediate Hollywood labor disputes without having unions represent filmmakers and studio workers. He first bounced the idea of director Fred Niblo, who’d made the 1925 epic “BEN-HUR,” actor Conrad Nagel & Association of Motion Picture Producers executive Fred Beetson. Mayer’s plan included an annual members banquet, but awards weren’t on the table yet.
The Academy would have members from only 5 moviemaking branches — acting, directing, producing, writing & technology. Mayer invited 36 prominent Hollywoodites to a Jan. 11 banquet at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, making them Academy founders. The group was incorporated May 4 and then elected Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. president & Fred Niblo first VP. There were 230 members and an honorary membership for movie pioneer Thomas Edison.
Events dashed Mayer’s hopes that the Academy would keep real Hollywood unions from taking hold. In the summer of 1927, Paramount led the studios in cutting salaries by 10% for all non-union labor. The Academy okayed it and moviemakers were livid. 500 actors, writers & directors met on July 6 to address the crisis at the Writers’ Club, an early screenwriters association. They were about to take action when the studios backed down. After other disputes, guilds emerged and evolved into the powerful force they are today.
In May 1928 an Academy committee was exploring giving “Awards of Merit.” By July, there were 12 categories and a voting system. The first Academy Awards, honoring 1927 & 1928’s best films, were held May 16, 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Fairbanks hosted and 270 guests paid $5 apiece for tickets to the 15-minute ceremony. The awards, already nicknamed Oscars, were designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by George Stanley.
1929’s 12 winners were announced 3 months earlier, including 2 best pictures — Fox’s drama “SUNRISE” from German director F. W. Murnau for Unique & Artistic Picture and Paramount’s aerial action war drama “WINGS” from William Wellman for Outstanding Picture. These categories were intended as equally prime awards, recognizing different types of filmmaking.
A year later, the Academy scrapped Unique & Artistic in favor of its more commercial Outstanding Picture award — fueling to this day the Best Picture Oscar struggle between art films and mainstream movies.
“I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” – Louis B. Mayer