Weathered plastic crates crammed with papers, books and binders cover the floor. Cardboard boxes compete for space atop four large filing cabinets lining one of the walls. Piles of manila envelopes and official-looking brown folders fill every visible bit of desk space, except for a tiny area around the computer mouse.
This is ground zero for the Oscars’ most important and detailed research: finding film factoids for the worldwide media to use in the endless stream of stories leading up to the March 5 Academy Awards show.
At 9 p.m. Monday, academy historian Patrick E. Stockstill and his team will be locked inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ headquarters — their phones and e-mail capability shut off — and presented with the names of this year’s Oscar nominees. By 5:38 a.m. Tuesday (when the nominations are announced on TV), they will have transformed Stockstill’s mess of papers, plus 1,860 file drawers filled with Oscar history, into a tidy collection of facts and figures for film fans to chew on.
It’s a task Stockstill first dreamed of doing when he was 14 years old.
That’s when he started keeping track of Oscar stats. He’d watch the Academy Awards and scribble the names of nominees and winners on 3-by-5 cards.
When he’d amassed more than 10,000 cards, young Patrick decided to become Oscar’s librarian.
“I heard that the academy had a library and said, ’I’m going to go work there,”’ the 56-year-old says, his smile hidden behind a full white beard. “It’s the one job in the world that I wanted to get.”
He got busy earning degrees in film and library science, and was named Academy Historian in 1983.
Now, after decades of immersion in movie stats, his mind works like an infinite database.
“Nobody even dares play Trivial Pursuit with me now,” he says, smirking.
Oh, but we’ll try.
So, Patrick, how many films are eligible for the Oscars this year?
“Three hundred eleven,” he says instantly. “It’s the most in a long time. I had to put it in my statistics book.”
Stockstill and his staff could potentially be asked to provide facts on any of those 311 films on nominations morning. And that takes a lot of research. They spend all year mired in movieana. There is no slow time. With every Academy Awards show, statistics change and databases need updating.
They start with the Academy’s list of eligible entries, then the brainstorming begins. But it’s not an entirely blind quest.
“We also have ears. We have eyes. We read newspapers. We hear people talking,” Stockstill says. “There are various other organizations already giving out awards. We keep an eye on stuff like that.”
Working with fellow librarians Lucia Schultz and Libby Wertin, Stockstill compiles a collection of historical facts about each of the nominees, to be presented to the press — and the world — on nominations morning.
It’s the most pressure-filled night of the year, he says.
“We don’t know what our nominations are going to be, so we have to consider as many things as possible.”
Anyone happen to know which actor has won the most awards?
“Katharine Hepburn has the most wins with four,” Stockstill says.
“But Meryl Streep has the most nominations,” Schultz adds. “She has 13.”
“Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson are tied at 12 nominations each,” Wertin says. “Jack Nicholson has three awards. So in terms of someone tying Katharine Hepburn’s record of four statuettes, we’re looking at Jack.”
Ah, The Three Musketriviasts.
“If you really want to stump us,” Wertin says, “just ask a basic question, like who won lead actor last year.”
Once the nominations are announced, the team begins phase two of its Oscar research, because every nominee is a potential winner during the big show.
Schultz collects biographies and credits for each of the nominees, plus the spelling of any name a winner is likely to mention during an acceptance speech.
“Hilary Swank thanks her makeup artist (Tania McComas),” Schultz says, noting that Swank is in the two-trophy club.
Since 1990, Schultz has worked in the press room during the Oscar broadcast, answering last-minute questions from reporters and feeding details to workers updating the Oscar.com Web site.
OK, Patrick, what was the longest Oscar broadcast?
“Four hours and 24, 25 minutes,” he responds in a nanosecond. “Laura Ziskin was the producer.” (The year: 2002.)
Since 2003, the Academy also has offered a searchable database online for anyone curious about movie history. The Margaret Herrick Library, where Stockstill’s cluttered office is located, is also open to regular folks, who are free to peruse tomes as diverse as “Aviation in the Cinema” and “Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: A Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.”
Reference librarians will research questions that aren’t easily answered in the library or online, such as a recent inquiry about a snake that escaped during an Oscar show.
Wertin discovered that a performing reptile (name: Saapa), destined to participate in a production number, slithered off during rehearsals (in 1993).
“He wasn’t found for six months,” she says. “The understudy snake (Aladdin) actually had to go into the production.”
Betcha don’t know this one, Patrick. Wait, let’s not bet: What was the shortest screen time that led to an acting Oscar?
“Four and a half minutes,” he says in less than four and a half seconds. “Supporting actress Beatrice Straight for ’Network.”’
Never mind that the film came out in 1976.
So how does he remember all this stuff?
It helps that he spends most of his time in a place he characterizes as “the finest specialized film library in the world.”
But, as Wertin points out, the best information isn’t necessarily found in the files.
“One of our biggest resources at the library,” she says, “are the people who work here.”
And, by the way: Last year’s best-actor winner was Jamie Foxx. And we didn’t even have to ask.