Oscarwatch: Campaigning & Predictions
That said, before we get into this week’s predictions, it might be interesting to address something that comes up a lot in the comment section: Campaigning. What is it? Who does it? Is it a product of modern times (spoiler alert: no.)? In short, campaigns are about getting your film to be seen and remembered among the 8 billion screeners that pile up at the end of the year – often, achieving that means holding as many screenings and Q&As as you possibly can, selling a memorable narrative to go along with the film, and getting the most recognizable faces attached to that project (actors and some directors) out there, reinforcing the message for you. So without further ado, let’s start with what the film executives have to say on the matter, move on to some campaigning history, and then hear from an “awards consultant”:
For Film Executives, Oscars still hold a more personal value than just its monetary possibilities
Katzenberg: When I came to Hollywood, I was 23 years old and from New York. The dream, as a young kid starting out in this business, is to own a house in Malibu Beach and win an Academy Award. (Laughter.) One was the fantasy of, you know, Beach Blanket Bingo or whatever, the good life. That was the representation of what [the late former Paramount owner] Charlie Bluhdorn used to call the "Bank of America award." And the other side of it was the achievement of something great in the eyes of your peers. And the Academy Awards were then and are today -- irrespective of anything else in terms of what they are to the outside world -- for our community, they are the pinnacles of success. That's always the yin-yang that you get so caught up in, which is, "Is this about the way our customers see our business, or is it about the way we see ourselves?"
THR: Jeffrey, how did you feel in 1999 when Saving Private Ryan lost best picture to Shakespeare in Love? You were running DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.
Katzenberg: It's very hard. Shakespeare in Love was a wonderful movie, but for me, someone who grew up on movies and remembers seeing Spartacus as a kid on Broadway, Saving Private Ryan is one of the great movies of all time and will stand the test of time. How that happened will always be a mystery to me.
Barker: That's one I'd like to see the vote on. It could have been one vote; we don't know.
THR: Harvey Weinstein changed the game with his campaign for Shakespeare in Love. Did you realize it at the time?
Katzenberg: Most of these executives here have been in business with Steven Spielberg over the years, and one of the things I've always respected enormously about Steven is that there is no such thing as campaigning, even during our DreamWorks phase. It was like: "Forget it. I don't do this. This is not what the Academy is about. I don't believe in it." He forbade us from campaigning. Terry Press, who is as good at this as anybody, was shackled with duct tape over her mouth.
Barker: I personally think it is totally overdone. I'm a little bit on Mr. Spielberg's side. I think you have to spend on an Academy campaign to get the Academy members to see the film, but I don't think they're influenced beyond that.
Katzenberg: Unfortunately, that's not true. I mean, honestly, that's no longer the case.
Gianopulos: It's sort of like campaign reform legislation in the political arena. Unless everybody plays by the rules and agrees to them, it's not going to stop. Rob and I are both members of the board of the Academy, and the Academy has tried to put some lids on what people can do and some of the practices that have gotten out of hand.
Friedman: If it was left unbridled, it would get really bad.
Moore: Some of the spend is political. The pressure comes from the filmmakers and the talent when they start to ratchet things up because they see what someone else is doing and they're saying, "Why aren't you doing the same thing for my movie?"
Langley: To Rob's point, when you do vanity campaigns, you look at it like that.
You can watch the full roundtable here.
Great Moments in Oscar Campaigning (and Not-So-Great)
Returning to prominence with the title role in "Mildred Pierce" after nearly a decade of lackluster, largely unsuccessful movies, Joan Crawford hires press agent Henry Rogers to mastermind what might have been the first true Oscar campaign.
Planting items in gossip columns, calling friends at the studios and making sure Crawford was available and cooperative with any reporters who wanted to talk to her, he turned his client into the odds-on favorite by Oscar night -- at which point a terrified Crawford refused to attend the show because, she said, she knew she was going to lose.
Undaunted, Rogers notified the press that his client was in bed with a 104-degree fever, while dispatching a makeup artist and a hairstylist to her house just in case. Crawford won, and Rogers brought the press when he delivered her Oscar after the ceremony.
Said the admiring publicist later, “the photo of her in bed clutching the Oscar pushed all the other winners off the front page.”
The low-key drama "Marty" becomes the first film whose production cost ($340,000) is less than the price of its Oscar campaign ($400,000).
With extensive pre-release screenings to foster word-of-mouth, ads bearing endorsements from the likes of Charlton Heston, Dean Martin and Jane Russell, nonstop personal appearances by the film’s likeable star, Ernest Borgnine, and an unprecedented offer to send a 16-millimeter print of the movie to the home of any Academy member, the film’s promotional blitz nets it four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
To support his expensive, flag-waving epic "The Alamo," John Wayne mounts one of the most excessive Oscar campaigns in history, with ad after ad essentially suggesting that it would be unpatriotic not to vote for his film, “the most expensive picture ever made on American soil.”
His campaign results in six nominations -- including one for supporting actor Chill Wills, who proceeds to outstrip his costar with a campaign of unparalleled tastelessness – at fifty-eight, after half a century in film, Wills realized this was his only chance to win the award. Thus, he didn't hesitate to print ads like: “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” “Cousin Chill's acting was great,” he wrote, signing, Your Alamo cousin.” Another ad read: “Win, lose, or draw. You're still my cousins and I love you all.”
Comedian Groucho Marx, appalled by Wills's methods, wrote back: “Dear Mr. Wills. I am delighted to be your cousin. But I'm voting for Sal Mineo (nominated for Exodus). Wayne himself didn't approve of Wills's campaign tactics and reproached him in print, which prompted Groucho Marx's comment, “For John Wayne to impugn Chill Wills's taste is tantamount to Jayne Mansfield criticizing Sabrina for too much exposure.”
Wayne blasts Wills, press agent W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz takes the rap, and "The Alamo" wins but a single Oscar, for sound.
A press agent with a penchant for flash, Allan Carr, mounts a campaign designed to turn a three-hour Vietnam film from little-known director Michael Cimino into an Academy favorite, and then use the awards buzz to hype the film’s release.
Carr’s tactics, which include exclusive year-end runs in L.A. and New York, lots of private screenings and a push targeted at critics’ groups, help land "The Deer Hunter" five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Cimino subsequently torpedoes his career with his next film, the expensive disaster "Heaven’s Gate," while Carr goes on to produce the 1989 Oscars, widely derided as the worst ever.
Feverish for Academy recognition after her well-received role in the indie movie Anna, veteran actress Sally Kirkland pulls out all the stops in the most feverish one-woman blitzkrieg campaign the Academy has ever seen.
She hires two press agents, writes personal letters to every single Academy member and gets Shelley Winters to make 150 phone calls to voters. Kirkland lands a nomination but loses to Cher … and 25 years later, she’s still a fixture at Oscar shows.
Sally Kirkland, the moment it was all over:
Campaign Managers: The Secrets of an Awards-Season Influencer
After years toiling in the trenches of Oscar campaigns, the sought-after awards consultant has in the past two years helped The Weinstein Company secure 29 Oscar nominations and win back-to-back Best Picture Oscars -- the first for "The King’s Speech" and the second for that unlikely winner earlier this year, the black-and-white non-talkie "The Artist."
That track record, plus a reputation for quiet, unrelenting pursuit and savvy strategic moves, has cemented her status as the person to hire if you want to win an Oscar.
“I know no tricks, I know no black magic,” she told TheWrap. “There are no tricks. It’s all about the movies. But if you’re not committed and competitive and thinking in a clever way, you’re not going to succeed.”
Taback is accomplished but not unique; she is one of a near-army of Oscar consultants who have established themselves as key conduits to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, schmoozing, gleaning info, passing intelligence and offering insider advice to movie studios and producers.
“A great consultant is equal parts awards season strategist, media planner, social butterfly, publicist, partisan pit bull, film promoter and hand holder for those who believe their films are truly worthy of the distance,” observed Sony’s Steve Elzer, who has hired many in his time.
“At the end of the day, these people can only do so much in terms of formulating a blueprint to get your film in front of the right eyeballs. Ultimately, the film itself has to shine through and do the heavy lifting,” Elzer told TheWrap.
Taback has been up close with Harvey Weinstein as he has pioneered Oscar campaigning techniques, from establishing phone banks in the ‘90s (which were subsequently banned) to winning endorsements for his movies from prestigious Academy members like Robert Wise, or from historic figures like Dolores and Carmen Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters, who spoke out last year on behalf of "The Artist."
A key to that campaign, Taback said, was its focus on the fact that the movie was shot in Los Angeles. “People fell in love with that,” she said.
“I helped for that message to get out there. I look for the story that people need to be know that can be buried in the back of the film.” Another key tactic involved holding back the DVD screener until the last moment -- it arrived in mailboxes the day the ballots were due -- so that AMPAS voters were almost “forced” to see the movie on the big screen, with an audience.
This year, Taback is thinking hard about David O. Russell’s "Silver Linings Playbook," Paul Thomas Anderson’s "The Master" and Quentin Tarantino’s "Django Unchained," new works from three of this generation’s leading film auteurs. “I’m listening a lot to what they’re saying and how they came to make their films,” she said.
“It’s really different with someone like David Russell or PTA or Quentin. We don’t give them a formula and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I’m really involved with them in the process. We do it with them.”
On the whole, Taback has moved away from “the fancy lunches and dinners.” Instead, she said: “Screen, screen, screen. Don’t make your movie feel precious. Make it feel accessible.” And so she is. In recent weeks, she was out late running between a screening of "Silver Linings Playbook" at the Egyptian Theatre and a last-minute LACMA presentation of Anderson’s favorite war movies.
As for Oscar whispering?
Taback says she talks to members of the Motion Picture Academy “a lot less than you would think. Everyone thinks we have a secret stash of Academy members we can convince,” she joked. “We can ask members to watch the film. When they get 80 films, we can say, ‘If you haven’t watched this film, would you watch it? I think you’d appreciate it.’ And that’s the most I’ll say.”
This is an excerpt of the article The Secrets of an Awards-Season Influencer, which can be read in full here
Long list: John Hawkes (The Sessions), Jean Louis Trintignant (Amour)
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