You thought political campaigns were tough
You know it’s a real Oscar race when every campaign has a slogan. Everyone loves “The Queen.” Get on the bus for “Little Miss Sunshine.” No film moved you more than “Babel.” “The Departed” is Martin Scorsese at his best. “Letters From Iwo Jima” was directed by Clint Eastwood, which, although technically not a catchphrase, is pretty much shorthand for Oscar gold these days.
With no clear best picture frontrunner this year -- bets seesaw between “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine” -- the final weeks before the Academy Awards have been passing in a blizzard of print and TV ads, screeners, coffee-table books, tchotchkes and celebratory cocktail parties. Television appearances by nominees peaked the week after ballots went out on Jan. 31, when, conventional wisdom has it, most academy members do their voting. But print ads, especially for best picture contenders, will remain at a near hysterical pitch until Tuesday’s voting deadline.
“If there were a 200-pound gorilla in the race, things would be tapering off,” says longtime strategist Michelle Robertson. “But this year, everyone has a ray of hope, so some are going to the bitter end.”
These frantic final days are the culmination of high-priced, highly calibrated battle plans that began in June or July. That’s when the consultants are hired, when the in-house publicists start drawing up their budgets, when the films are screened and award potential first discussed.
“Sometimes, we’re talking about Oscars at Cannes,” says Amanda Lundberg, founding partner of the public-relations firm 42West and former head of publicity at Miramax. “And that’s in May.”
Lundberg and Robertson are just two among a phalanx of people in Hollywood and New York who help studios and filmmakers win awards. The work they do has been the subject of controversy for years. There are virtually as many complaints about campaign spending for the Oscars, which can go as high as $15 million for a single film, as there are for any presidential race.
This year, the academy once again shortened the number of days between the announcement of the nominations and the awards ceremony in an effort to curtail spending.
Industry insiders have various opinions about the effectiveness -- this year may be the shortest Oscar season yet, but it’s arguably the most intense -- or necessity of the changes. “It assumes you can somehow create a level playing field,” says one strategist. “And that’s just impossible.”
Meanwhile, there’s the Internet, land of no rules, which has become the latest campaigning frontier. “I don’t think academy members read blogs,” publicist Eddie Michaels says. “But morning-radio DJs go to the Internet for a lot of their content. And radio’s an important outlet.”
Michaels, who has done Oscar work for many years, sees a shift in the campaigns of the last few years.
“There’s much more of a street-team mentality, of generating buzz among young consumers,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if they are academy voters or not.”
Before a film is distributed, or, as in the case of “Dreamgirls,” before it’s even finished, publicists and strategists are imagining the Oscar campaign. The lead male is no good, but the female lead is great, so is this a performance award winner or is there a best picture possibility? If it’s the latter, what are some of the other categories to go after -- director, probably screenplay. What else? Cinematography? Costumes?
“You need below-the-line categories to support a best picture nomination,” Robertson says. “And so, the morning of the nominations, you’re [looking] at the nominations beyond those with the bells and whistles to tell you if you really have a chance.”
Robertson, whose firm, MRC, is a consultant on Warner Bros. campaigns this year, has worked the Oscar race for more than 10 years. She was at Fox Searchlight when “The Full Monty” went from indie darling to awards contender. To this day, she has her lucky spot outside the academy on the morning nominations are announced -- the place she was standing when she heard that “The Full Monty” was up for best picture, director, screenplay and music.
When discussing Oscar campaigns, she and other publicists and industry watchers say the same thing: There is no blueprint, template or secret potion for an awards campaign. The best-laid plans of “All the King’s Men” (widely considered a multiple-awards candidate before its release last summer) can be shredded by critics or the box office, while small films like “Crash” or “Boys Don’t Cry” chug their way to victory.
“It’s like the movies themselves,” says Tony Angellotti, a longtime publicist for Universal. “You never really know what’s going to work or not. You don’t know if a film works until you put it in front of people.”
Sometimes, not even then -- the New York academy screening of best picture shutout “Dreamgirls” was the most enthusiastic in memory, while the one for “Capote,” which got a best picture nomination and a best actor win, was tepid.
The trick, ironically enough, is moderation, albeit the Hollywood version. Lots of publicity but not too much. Confidence but not arrogance. Being realistic can help. After the nominations are announced, strategists calculate their chances and plan their next moves accordingly. The year Julia Roberts was nominated for “Erin Brockovich,” for example, the studios backing the other nominees (Joan Allen, Laura Linney, Juliette Binoche and Ellen Burstyn) were not about to break the bank on campaigning.
However, being the front-runner can also be risky. Like Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker, who have swept the acting awards this season, the best picture favorite runs the risk of voter burnout. And although other awards shows are not accurate predictors of the Oscars, they are worth watching, if only for what doesn’t happen.
“You watch to see what the reactions are,” says a publicist. “A competitor wins at the [Golden] Globes, but the room doesn’t seem wildly happy about it, then you still have a chance.”
And every year, the waters will be muddied by one or two vanity projects, campaigns that defy logic and are waged for political reasons -- to show appreciation for a producer or director who has made the studio a lot of money or to put a new executive on the Oscar map.
The two goals of any campaign are to get people to see your movie and then remind/convince them what was terrific about it. Early on in awards season, the former is often done by tempting voters to the theater -- by having big premieres and star-studded guild screenings before the nominations are announced.
“No one can make someone love a terrible movie,” Robertson says. “But we try to help people remember why, exactly, they loved a great movie.”
It always helps to have a workhorse, a star who will show up for question-and-answer sessions, interviews and any and all industry parties. “You have to have filmmakers who are really committed,” Robertson says, “who are willing to work the campaign.”
Not every star will do that; this year, Mirren has been a workhorse, Scorsese has not. The campaign for “The Departed” has been based on understatement: Leonardo DiCaprio has done some press, but Scorsese has refused to talk -- as opposed to the wall-to-wall interviews he did for “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” -- and Jack Nicholson has been predictably unavailable. That has been pretty much the plan -- to let the movie breathe before slapping it with an awards label.
“Sometimes, people will start talking about Oscar so early,” says one strategist, “and then the film comes out and it’s not an awards film, it’s just a good film. But now, everyone sees it as a loser.”
During awards season, academy members are awash in DVDs. The rule of thumb is that they will watch 10, although they likely will have seen others before the nominations are out. So again, you have to get your people out, if only to remind voters that the actors are not the characters they play and that a lot of effort went into making the film. That is why Oscar ads for “Transamerica” showed two images of best actress nominee Felicity Huffman. One as gleaming movie star, the other as troubled transgender woman.
Still, if it were simply a matter of getting people to see movies, all the slogans and reprinted reviews, the merchandise given reporters and tastemakers -- “Babel” sent out a coffee-table book; “Little Miss Sunshine,” toy Volkswagen buses and cupcakes -- would be unnecessary.
Oscar campaigners want voters -- and the public -- not only to watch and like their movies, but also to watch and like them in a certain way. Reviews of “The Queen,” nailed Mirren as a shoo-in, but the idea of it as best picture material was an afterthought. Now, “The Queen” is not just a remarkable performance, but it also “captures a moment in time.”
In the end, of course, it’s all publicity. A nomination will give an art film wider distribution; an Oscar will increase DVD foreign sales. “The Oscars are about honoring the people who make the films,” Lundberg says, “but also about getting people excited about going to the movies. It wasn’t started by the committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.”