“Excuse me?” Mark Duplass asked, trying to get the attention of a tourist rushing by him on Hollywood Boulevard. “Have you ever seen ‘Everybody Loves Raymond?’”
The passerby nodded, staring at the actor’s face and trying to place him. Seizing his opportunity, Duplass launched into his pitch: He was sitting outside of the Dolby Theatre at 9 a.m. on a Friday, Nov. 15, to bring awareness to his co-star Ray Romano’s performance in their Netflix movie, “Paddleton.”
“Wait, the one with the bear?” the stranger responded.
“No, ‘Paddington’ is the one with the bear,” Duplass smiled gently, as if he’d gotten the question before.
“Paddleton” — which the 42-year-old also produced and co-wrote — tells the story of two neighbors who form a deep bond after one of them (Duplass’ character) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, earning largely positive reviews before it went up on Netflix a month later.
By most measures, that’s a huge success for an independent film that cost less than $1 million to make. And Duplass gets that. But there’s also part of him that feels like the streaming outlet could have promoted “Paddleton” more, ultimately leading Romano to be up for awards consideration this season.
Which is why, last week, he decided to buy a dozen pieces of poster board, get out a Sharpie and make signs promoting Romano’s turn in “Paddleton.” His plan was to take his homemade advertisements — “EVERYBODY STILL LOVES RAYMOND” “4 UR CONSIDE-RAY-SHUN! “VOTE 4 RAY!” — to Hollywood & Highland, Sunset Boulevard and the offices of Film Independent, which he believed might be deliberating on nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards. (They’re scheduled to be announced Thursday.)
The foot traffic was slower than expected at his first stop, where he found himself competing with the Hulk and Spider-Man for tourists’ interest. He was dressed in all black — a T-shirt that revealed his stomach when he held up his sign, sweatpants and Nikes — save for a collection of faded string anklets his two daughters had made for him. He’d called Romano earlier in the week to share his campaign plan, and said he got the sense that the 61-year-old had been flattered but was also embarrassed for him — like the whole thing was a little “desperate and weird.”
“And he’s not wrong. There’s this good little Catholic boy in me that says, ‘Mark, you’re an independent filmmaker that should be — or could be — broke. You have a great living. Netflix is putting out your movies to millions of viewers. Boo-hoo, it’s not many more millions and there are no awards. Shut up. Go home and write another movie,’” said Duplass, who in fact entered into a four-picture production deal with Netflix alongside his brother, Jay, in 2018.
“But I think this is what it is: There is this part of my heart that is so tied to the DNA of what this kind of movie is. There is this piece of me that says, ‘I don’t think I can beat this, and if this isn’t enough, I don’t know what is.’”
The Duplass brothers, who came up in the Austin, Texas, filmmaking community, are often recognized for helping to launch the ‘Mumblecore’ movement — making quiet, low-budget movies about intimate relationships with a lot of improvised dialogue. Their first hit, “The Puffy Chair,” was actually bought by current Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos in 2005, when the production and distribution arm of the company was called Red Envelope.
In the early days of their partnership, Mark did most of the acting and Jay was behind the camera, though now Jay performs too — most notably in the Amazon series “Transparent.” Mark’s career has grown too: This fall alone he is co-starring with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in Apple’s “The Morning Show” and playing the on-screen husband to Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly in the Fox News movie “Bombshell.”
But Duplass feels like the younger brother on those types of projects. With “Paddleton,” he’s the father.
“When I ask Ray Romano to come do a movie like this and sleep in a not really nice hotel and not have a trailer and sit in a tent when it’s kind of raining outside with me and improvise the entire script — which is so out of his comfort zone, he was so scared to improvise drama — I want him to be seen and rewarded for it,” he explained. “I want the world to value that. So maybe there is a little bit of me shaking my fists at the world and hoping that awards consideration can bring more overall viewers to it.”
After about an hour in front of the Dolby, where he’d managed to engage a few people in conversation and taken some selfies, Duplass decided to walk down to a shop that had life-size fake gold Oscar statues in front of it.
“Are you a famous guy?” the store’s security guy asked, noticing Duplass’ entourage, which included his assistant and publicist, a photographer and this reporter.
“If you have to ask the question, the answer is ‘no,’” Duplass replied.
“I’ve seen your stuff,” the guard insisted, proceeding to mention the FX show “The League.”
Duplass took a quick shot with the Oscars before the guard warned his boss would get mad if the actor spent too much time hogging the photo space. He said he understood, gathered his signs and led the way to his Volvo. His assistant got behind the wheel and Duplass sat in the back seat amid the detritus of his children: an errant flip-flop, a faux cat tail leftover from a Halloween costume and a beaded bracelet.
As the car headed toward Sunset, Duplass recalled how he’d attended a Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. party the night before on behalf of “The Morning Show.” At the event — also attended by Robert Pattinson, Emilia Clarke and Greta Gerwig — he said he had a moment where he looked around and started to feel like a shill.
“I thought: ‘This is kind of gross. Hot Priest ain’t out here doing this,’” he said, referring to the actor Andrew Scott, whose character on “Fleabag” became a cultural phenomenon. “And guess what? Hot Priest is definitely getting nominated. And you know why? Because he was incredible and the work speaks for himself. ‘So shut up, Mark, and go home.’ That is not lost on me as I’m out here begging for consideration for Ray — like, let the work speak for itself.”
Duplass asked his assistant to stop at a liquor store right next to two Netflix billboards on Sunset, one for “Dolemite Is My Name” and the other for “The Irishman,” which Romano has a supporting role in. While there was no huge advertisement for “Paddleton,” Netflix has done a fair amount of promotion for the film: Screeners were sent to the acting branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Screen Actors Guild, while official screenings were held for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the National Board of Review and the Writers Guild of America, East.
“I guess the truth is I’m still kind of figuring out how I feel about this stuff,” Duplass continued. “It would be really cool and interesting to discuss a world where awards campaigns look like this because there’s a cap on the money you can spend on them. Where you don’t need to spend $10 million or $15 million to cut through. Is there a way to level the playing field a little bit more with better rules?”
Duplass, who was admitted to the academy in 2014, has lobbied on behalf of independent films before. In 2015, he and his brother persuaded Magnolia Pictures to mount an Oscar campaign for transgender actress Mya Taylor in “Tangerine.” A couple of years later, he wrote an open letter (that actually turned out to go against academy rules) urging academy members to vote for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.”
“And I got really excited when ‘Moonlight’ won. I was like, ‘This is going to change everything.’ And then [expletive] ‘Green Book’ won. I was like, ‘great,’” Duplass recalled, mentioning the best picture winners two of the last three years. “For me, the ‘Green Book’ win was emblematic of a soft, easy choice from some of the older members of the academy who felt like that was a really edgy movie about race and there was a large, expensive campaign that helped to get behind that. It just felt like there were more interesting movies, and I’d like to see more movies like ‘Moonlight’ win.”
It was time to head to Duplass’ final and most ambitious stop of the day: Film Independent, located in a nondescript office building on Wilshire Boulevard. Within minutes of his arrival, an employee was sent down to see if the actor was outside boycotting the nonprofit organization.
“Who would trash Film Independent?” Duplass asked earnestly. “No, I’m trying to sneakily find someone who is on the jury.”
The employee looked relieved and said she would see if she could find someone to let him upstairs. Soon, two more staffers emerged to usher him into the elevator. Upstairs in the lobby of Film Independent, the group’s president, Josh Welsh, had been sent to greet him.
“What is going on? You’re crazy! This is insane!” Welsh said.
“I’m running an independent awards campaign for Ray Romano because Netflix, understandably, is spending all their money on ‘The Irishman’ and I want him to get this love,” Duplass explained.
“Did you draw this? Because this is really good,” Welsh said, pointing to Duplass’ poster, where Romano looked more like Tig Notaro than the guy from “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“I did,” Duplass said with a laugh. “And I don’t know if you have rules or have ever dealt with anything like this before. And I also don’t want to put you on the spot.”
“This might be a first,” Welsh replied. “I think we need to have a full staff meeting. We may have to take the sign out back and burn it.”
The two men discussed awards campaigning, and Welsh urged Duplass to encourage membership signup to Film Independent, because members will ultimately vote for the winners of the Indie Spirits. Duplass thanked Welsh for letting him crash their offices and headed toward the elevator with a grin on his face.
“That was way more than I could have hoped for,” he said. “He can’t do anything, because he doesn’t deliberate. But he looked me in the eye and told me that the nominating committee will see that sign. And that’s all I needed.
“I think there’s a possibility that this really awkward, strange thing that we’ve fumbled through today might garner some attention for Ray for an award, or make someone else consider new and interesting ways to campaign if it does move the needle. It would be awesome if it made some companies say: ‘Jesus, Mark Duplass just did this with four hours of his time and no money, and it worked.’”