EXPLAINER: How the Oscar 'in memoriam' segment is decided

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Image Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The film industry was devastated by two recent deaths that have led to a movement to alter this Sunday’s “in memoriam” segment of the Oscar telecast: One was the natural causes passing of comedy filmmaker Harold Ramis, 69, and the other was the accidental death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, 27, who was struck by a train in Georgia while working on a biopic of rock musician Gregg Allman.

Ramis, the star of Ghostbusters and Stripes, and director of Vacation, Caddyshack, and Groundhog Day, died on Monday at his home in Chicago, while Jones, whose credits include Midnight Rambler (the film that led to her death) and the TV series The Vampire Diaries, was killed last Thursday while filming on a bridge that authorities said was supposed to be off-limits to the production. Due to the questions surrounding her death, her name has become a rallying cry for behind-the-scenes workers calling for more scrutiny of on-set safety.

It has also led to a movement. Many are signing petitions and making telephone calls asking the producers of the Oscars to include her in the telecast’s tribute. But … that effort misunderstands how that part of the show is created.

Under most circumstances, a film worker in Jones’ position would not be included in the telecast’s tribute. That’s not meant as a dismissal of her, or her job, but there are many thousands of people employed by the entertainment industry, and — for better or worse — the Oscars tend to focus only on the deaths of those who are familiar to the public at large.

If not, you could expect the “in memoriam” segment to take up the entire 3-and-a-half-hour running time of the telecast.

But yes, there certainly have been times when exceptions were made. At the 83rd annual ceremony, publicist Ronni Chasen was included after being gunned down while driving home from a movie premiere, even though her name was only well-known within the film industry.

There’s no question the Academy could make a change if it wanted — particularly if it was a matter of sending a message about on-set safety. But the decision is not up to the producers — this year, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — so efforts to flood their offices with letters, emails, phone calls, and a bombardment of tweets is simply taking the argument to the wrong people. (The producers themselves did not immediately return a call for comment.)

While they control much of the content of the telecast, there are two elements of the Oscars over which they have no say: the “in memoriam” reel and tickets to the show. This is partly designed to protect whomever is producing the show — a way of preventing them from getting deluged by requests for either.

So who decides? That would be a committee made up from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who sift through a list of about 300 submissions and decide yea or nay on who makes the cut, depending on their contribution to filmmaking. Roughly 40 end up being included in the film, which is created weeks in advance of the Oscars.

The producers are given the list, and then commission the film. And almost every year, the names of those left out tend to cause an uproar.

The film can be re-edited at the last minute, and that is very likely going to be the case with Ramis — a decades-long presence in the TV and film business, responsible for some of the most memorable and thoughtful comedies of the past 30 years. But if he does make the cut, it is those achievements that are being commemorated — not just his demise. And his last-minute addition will come at the behest of the Academy, not the producers.

In the case of Sarah Jones, it’s very possible that all the film crews who are galvanized to action by her death could make a compelling case for her inclusion in the broadcast. But that case has to be made to the Academy, and not the producers — who can do nothing but refer such requests to AMPAS. (All while trying to put a show on this Sunday.)

Those who hope the Oscars will take a stand on this issue should be sure to make their request in the right direction. It may be too late for this year, but those who believe in this cause could also benefit from making sure it’s remembered a year from now.

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