BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The holidays may be winding down, but for Oscar fans, the season of celebration has just begun.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mailed 5,810 official Oscar nominations ballots to voting members Friday, and perhaps no one was more excited - or more daunted - to cast votes than its 105 newest members.
"It's like 'Wayne's World.' I'm not worthy," said Doug Cooper, 35, who just joined the short films and feature animation branch. "Basically, it's fear. You have to make a decision."
Cinematographer Jonathan Brown said he and his industry pals have been doing their own Oscar polling for years - but this time, his vote really counts.
"The idea that now it matters is so cool," he said. "We can, in a small way, have an influence in people getting recognized."
New academy inductees were recently toasted at a private reception in Beverly Hills, where they mingled with fellow members and reflected on what it means to belong to Hollywood's most exclusive club.
Producer Armyan Bernstein said he's been preparing to cast Oscar votes since he was a child.
"My mom would get dressed up on Oscar night and make a special dinner," he said. "The next day, we didn't have to go to school. It was like a Jewish holiday."
Academy President Sid Ganis welcomed the group and reminded them of their power as Oscar voters.
"Conscientiously wield that power," he said. "Fill out ballots as thoughtfully as you can. This is your area of expertise."
Each of the academy's 15 branches is responsible for nominating those in their field - so actors nominate actors and sound engineers nominate sound engineers - based on the eligible films released that year. (There were 281 in 2008.) Oscar's final winners are determined by the entire voting membership, regardless of what branch they claim.
"Don't vote in any category in which (a) you haven't seen all the nominated achievements, or (b) you don't feel qualified to make a sophisticated critical judgment," Ganis said. "Don't vote if you haven't got all the information. It's the honorable thing to do."
Membership in the academy is by invitation based on professional accomplishment. Nominations will be announced Jan. 22 and Oscars will be presented Feb. 22.
Academy members typically spend hours and hours watching the nominated films on DVD or in theaters before casting their final votes.
Helena Packer, a new member in the visual effects branch, said anxiety about the voting process began when she joined the academy.
"When a movie grabs you, you're not thinking in critical terms," she said. "This will require repeated viewing."
But Jim Houston, a new member at large, said that as a filmmaker, he feels qualified to weigh in on others' work.
"Once you start making movies, you have an internal critic going at all times," said the 49-year-old, adding that he's as interested in the academy's science and technology council as he is in casting Oscar votes.
While voting on the Oscars is one of the most coveted responsibilities of academy members, it's hardly their only opportunity to wield influence in the world of film. The organization maintains expansive movie and screenplay archives, operates a film-studies library, and hosts exhibits, screenings and special programs throughout the year - and academy members are key figures in all of it.
"The coolest thing is getting access to members, collections and events," said Brown, who just joined the cinematographers branch.
Members can volunteer to serve as readers for the academy's annual Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition or help spread the word about their craft through its media-literacy program at local schools.
Regardless of how they plan to get involved, their work begins in earnest as soon as those nomination ballots land in their mailboxes.
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