OSCARS night—with its posing, its speechifying and, when all goes awry, its announcing of a wrong winner—is the world’s most recognisable awards ceremony. But the real excitement begins afterwards. For the lucky few, the transformative power of an Oscar win is extraordinary. One study has estimated that winners of the “Best Actor” gong see their salaries rise by more than 80%. Another points out that between 2008 and 2012 “Best Picture” winners earned around $14m more after the win than the other nominated films. It makes sense for film studios to maximise their chances of getting one of the statuettes. But what exactly should they do?

Simply put, they have to convince the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the 8,000-odd film-making professionals who decide the winners. But allowing a film to speak for itself is not usually enough. So studios devote millions of dollars to persuading the Academy that their movie is more than just two hours of escapism. The man behind the modern era of Oscar-hunting is also the man whose alleged misdeeds will form a backdrop to this year’s ceremony on March 4th: Harvey Weinstein. The co-founder of an independent studio, Miramax, he reckoned that major studios won Oscars because smaller rivals failed to compete. So he began to do just that. He went to unprecedented lengths to host screenings wherever Academy members might be (including, notoriously, in retirement homes). Miramax lobbied them relentlessly. The studio moved its actors to Los Angeles for weeks at a time and hosted parties every night to generate the elusive “buzz” around a film. There were even reports of whispering campaigns against rivals. And at the Oscars of 1999, it was Miramax′s “Shakespeare in Love”, which had a production budget of just $25m, that won “Best Picture”, ahead of Steven Spielberg’s second-world war blockbuster, “Saving Private Ryan”. 

It was a watershed moment. Since then the Miramax model has been copied across Hollywood. Oscar-hunting marketing budgets often outstrip the cost of shooting the film. There has been something of a backlash, though. In 2011 the Academy issued new regulations regarding studio behaviour. The updated rules for the 2018 Oscars run to ten pages. Limits are now placed on the number of times that actors or directors can appear in front of Academy members to promote their films. Negative campaigning and overt lobbying is forbidden. And the rules are tightened further in the crucial period between the announcing of the nominations and the actual vote. 

The effectiveness of these regulations is hard to gauge. Of the past four “Best Pictures”, two (“Birdman”, “12 Years a Slave”) were distributed by a major studio, and two (“Moonlight”, “Spotlight”) by indie operations. That suggests that success is not just a question of budget, and the Academy’s credibility does not feel immediately at risk. But all the same, change is in the air. The push to prominence of Netflix and Amazon is a challenge to both the traditional studios and the Academy. Studios face increased competition for the films they want to buy. And Netflix’s business model—taking films directly to its subscribers and ignoring cinemas altogether—puts it at odds with some of the Academy’s other rules. These insist that to be eligible for the Oscars, films must have been screened in Los Angeles within specified dates. At a time when cinema attendances are at a 25-year low the competition may need to reconsider all its regulations if it is to remain credible.