What’s lost on the award season campaign trail
Jesse Eisenberg, the star of “The Social Network,” was so busy campaigning for Hollywood awards this fall that he couldn’t act in an off-Broadway play. David Seidler, the screenwriter of “The King’s Speech,” has been so occupied with ceremonies and interviews that he hasn’t been able to pen a word for months. And Melissa Leo had so many promotional commitments related to her supporting role in “The Fighter” that the producers of HBO’s “Treme” cut her out of scenes.
FOR THE RECORD:
Oscar campaigns: A Feb. 27 article in Section A about long Oscar campaigns said that actress Melissa Leo had so many promotional commitments related to the film “The Fighter” that the producers of HBO’s “Treme,” in which she also has a role, cut her out of scenes. David Simon, the show’s executive producer, said that the show’s shooting schedule had to be rearranged due to Leo’s publicity schedule but that she was not cut out of any scenes because of her promotional conflicts. —
Not that long ago, Hollywood had one award ceremony that mattered: the Oscars. Today, countless guilds, critics groups and film festivals bestow all matter of prizes from Labor Day to late February. For actors, directors, writers and producers, the routine stops now include not only the Golden Globes and the industry’s guild ceremonies but also the American Cinema Editors Awards, the Palm Springs International Film Festival and the Gotham Awards, to name but a few.
A major prize can zoom winners up Hollywood’s food chain, landing projects formerly beyond reach — assuming they have time to take advantage of the opportunities. Some Oscar contenders put their careers (and a bit of their personal lives) on hold for nearly half a year, as they bounce among banquets, red carpets, panel discussions and other fetes.
Award attention can bolster movie ticket and DVD sales, but there are also costs — delayed opportunities and sheer exhaustion. The explosion of prizes and events has some in the industry calling for a shorter “award season” so that top talent can return to work sooner. For the average moviegoer, that might mean award winners would be back on the screen (or stage) a bit more quickly.
“We’re losing productivity,” said Christian Colson, producer of the Oscar best picture nominee “127 Hours.” “Many of the most talented people in the industry worldwide are not working for several months, and if you’re a front-runner, it’s even longer.” He suggested that the Academy Awards should introduce Internet balloting, which could shorten award season by a month.
Concerned about stagnant TV ratings and industry fatigue, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents Sunday’s ceremony, has looked into moving up the Oscars by as much as a month, but is wrestling with online voting security and TV competition from the NFL.
Some people, including “The Social Network” director David Fincher and “The Fighter” actor Christian Bale, manage to score Oscar nominations and keep working at the same time. Others in the business go on the circuit full-time. And though many people would happily trade their jobs for “work” on the Hollywood award trail, those who actually experience it say it’s hardly all wine and roses. Consider one particularly intense stretch of campaigning that Seidler, 73, did to tout “The King’s Speech.”
On Jan. 23, the day after the Producers Guild of America Awards in Beverly Hills, he flew to San Diego for a question-and-answer session. He rose early the next morning for a slew of phone interviews, then flew to Las Vegas to meet Screen Actors Guild members living there. That evening, he took an overnight flight to New York, waking to hear he had been nominated for an Oscar and embarked on even more interviews.
That night, Seidler attended a party thrown by Harvey Weinstein, distributor of “The King’s Speech.” Then he flew back to Los Angeles for the Directors Guild of America and SAG award ceremonies on Jan. 29 and 30, respectively. On Jan. 31, he flew to New York for more interviews and appearances, then to London to woo critics and members of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The tally: several huge award wins, a surge of momentum heading into the Oscars— and a debilitating chest cold.
“I understand now why the stars get a large check for each nomination they get, just to partially pay for the time when they can’t work,” said Seidler.
Besides stamina, the award circuit demands a tolerance for monotony.
“It’s really wild, the whole sort of world of it,” Natalie Portman said in November, about two months before the “Black Swan” actress was nominated for an Oscar. “I think the repeating myself is hard, because I think I’ve seen too many of those compilations that I feel like they do on [‘Saturday Night Live’] news where people do different talk shows and say the same anecdote over and over, and I feel like I’m that person.”
Some studios reach out to potential nominees well before a film’s premiere to warn them of what lies ahead.
Sony Pictures was so confident that “The Social Network” had a shot at the Oscars — and so insistent on Eisenberg’s participation in its campaign — that it invited his agent, Joanne Wiles, to see an unfinished version of the film in early summer. Eisenberg had been toying with the idea of starring in an off-Broadway play that would have opened in mid-October, but the studio didn’t want the actor to go missing when the movie opened.
In an interview ahead of the movie’s Oct. 1 release, the then-26-year-old clearly hadn’t yet made peace with the obligations ahead. “I’m supposed to do a play in November in New York and I can’t because of publicity,” he said. “No one is interested in me having longevity. No one cares — except my mom.”
Ultimately, Wiles said, “the decision to forgo the play was the right one.”
“It irked me a bit because it would have gotten Jesse’s mind off of promoting himself and back to what he loves, but it didn’t make sense,” she added. “The people at Sony, and [‘Social Network’ producer] Scott Rudin were very smart about how they handled us moving into that decision and making us feel like it was our own.”
Actors, Wiles said, must take equal responsibility for promotional work, given the millions that studios invest in production and marketing. “In a perfect world, actors would just do what they love and act, but that’s not the way the world works, nor should anyone expect it to work that way,” she said.
Geoffrey Fletcher, who won the adapted screenplay Oscar last year for “Precious,” said his promotional efforts started at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and then were nonstop from September to February. “It felt nearly impossible to do any work beyond going through the awards commitments. I tried and couldn’t get anything coherent or useful or substantive together,” Fletcher said.
As soon as he recovered from the grind, Fletcher was able to finish writing and then directed “Violet & Daisy.” “The awards season and the win really made it possible to do it on the scale that it was done for,” he said of his crime thriller, due later this year.
Literary agent Robert Newman noted that two years ago, directors Fincher, Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan were all busily promoting their respective films “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Wrestler” and “The Dark Knight.” Despite that time campaigning, all four are back in the Oscar best picture race this year, with “The Social Network,” “127 Hours,” “Black Swan” and “Inception.”
“Having to devote time to an awards campaign falls into the category of a high-class problem,” Newman said.
Whether all the flesh-pressing and wilted salads ultimately land you an Oscar might be beside the point, some say. Doing the work to get to the nominees’ circle — and the attention it brings to your film — is the critical test.
“I really believe that the nomination itself is the big thing that bolsters your career,” said Seidler, who has just sold a World War II movie idea. “Winning is of course better — it supercharges it. But the nomination from the academy is a terrific thing for your career.”
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.