In 1984, gaining access to the Oscars was pretty easy. Calling from Vanity Fair, where new immigrant Tina Brown had just taken over as editor, I was able to secure photo credentials for the red carpet and backstage just a few weeks before the big day. (I used two cameras, one a first-generation point-and-shoot, so the results are a bit, well, Instagram-atic.)

Now, the red carpet is a much tougher ticket—and the Oscars are really big business. This year, according to the Academy, 195 media outlets vied for red-carpet shots (60 print, 56 TV, 40 photo, 26 online, and 13 radio); applications for 2013 slots are due by mid-November. Next come the Oscar campaigns—an estimated $100 million worth of screenings, parties, and “For Your Consideration” ads in the trades. The effort to snag a Best Picture nod can be worth it, especially for indie movies such as 2011 winner The King’s Speech (which saw a 925-percent box-office return on its budget, according to IBISWorld, a research firm). The Academy gets more than $85 million a year in broadcast fees from ABC, and the network makes a bundle on the commercials. Then there are those big-ticket stars, swaddled by stylists in millions’ worth of designer fashions and jewelry. Really, that carpet is paved with gold.

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Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR