Selling Stardom: Paying for a shot at Oscar gold
It’s called the “Oscar Qualifying Package,” and it’s aimed at filmmakers who dream of snagging an Academy Award nomination.
For a fee, Cinemaflix Distribution says it will help aspiring Spielbergs qualify their movies for Academy Awards consideration by lining up theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles, having a “well-connected” film publicist reach out to critics and taking out ads in support of the picture.
The company’s website — which until recently included an unauthorized depiction of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences logo — stops short of promising eligibility, referring viewers to the Academy’s official site for rules.
Even so, first-time filmmaker Pradeep Rawat said that after seeing the site he bought a $21,000 qualifying package, believing that it would make his documentary about Hindu ritual art eligible.
It didn’t. Documentary features must be reviewed in the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times to be eligible, and neither organization decided to review “Goddess Creation to Immersion,” which Rawat financed himself.
“My only motivation behind making this film was that I would like to share the excellent, outstanding and unbelievable art and create awareness of it,” said Rawat, 74, who owns a manufacturing business in India and spent about $25,000 to produce “Goddess Creation to Immersion.”
Cinemaflix President Elliott Kanbar says that his company did everything it said it would do, and that it never promises that the qualifying package will make a movie eligible.
Instead, he said the service and others offered by Cinemaflix are aimed at up-and-coming filmmakers who don’t know the first thing about how to promote their movies or get them into theaters. He pointed to the success of documentaries “My Voice, My Life” and “Karski & the Lords of Humanity,” which were recently released via his company’s qualifying package and were reviewed by both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Both are eligible for the Oscars.
“There are a lot of filmmakers who have completed their films, and they are stumped,” said Kanbar, who launched Cinemaflix in fall 2014. “The filmmaker has spent years giving his blood and sweat and he doesn’t know what to do. I thought that I would fill that void, fill that need, by offering a package … to at least give that film the shot to get out there.”
Rawat said the Academy logo he saw on the Cinemaflix website made it appear as if the company was officially sanctioned.
Asked if the use of the Academy logo might have implied an endorsement, Kanbar said he wasn’t involved in the decision to use it on Cinemaflix’s website. Told that it was unauthorized, Kanbar said he had no intention of misleading filmmakers and removed the logo this week.
The competition for awards season glory is cutthroat at all levels. For those who make documentaries and short films, it’s a chance to get some recognition and possibly funding for higher-profile efforts.
To serve their needs, a cottage industry has cropped up to cater to modest projects that may not have the backing of a studio or major production company and require help to become eligible for the big awards show.
Cinemaflix is one of a handful of companies that provide this service. They are mostly boutique distribution and marketing firms adept at “four-walling,” a practice in which a distributor pays to rent out a theater for a set period of time and receives the box-office revenue generated by the film shown there.
“There is a business for companies that want to provide the service to qualify films for Oscar consideration. There are those companies that ... know what is involved in that,” said Josh Braun, co-president of film sales company Submarine. “There is the booking of the theater, the spending on the media, and the strategy to make sure you get a review in either New York or L.A. It’s a very evolved thing over many years.”
But sometimes Abramowitz has turned down such business when it is clear to him that a filmmaker’s expectations are unrealistic.
“We have been in the business a very long time based on our reputation with filmmakers,” Abramowitz said.
Indeed, some critics say that aspiring filmmakers’ outsized ambitions for their passion projects could make them easy targets.
“People imbue the Oscar with all their hopes and dreams,” said Amy Grey, a film publicist who has long worked on movies’ Academy Awards campaigns. “It is viewed as the supreme achievement to many people around the world.”
A key component to Oscars eligibility is ensuring that a film has met requirements by playing for one week in a theater — a so-called qualifying run. This is often accomplished via four-walling, but mainstream news organizations tend to shy away from reviewing films released this way, just as they steer clear of so-called vanity press novels in which the author pays for publication.
Still, sometimes four-walled films are reviewed.
The 2013 documentary short “The Lady in Number 6" became qualified for the Oscars after being four-walled for a brief theatrical run, said Grey, who handled publicity for the movie. It garnered an Oscar nomination and went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary short film in 2014.
“The filmmakers rented the theater, got no press. But two Academy documentary branch members showed up and apparently must have liked it,” she said.
Grey said that when she works on a film that is trying to become eligible for the Oscars, she typically requires at least six weeks lead time to promote it before its scheduled premiere. During that period, Grey said she disseminates press materials, pitches stories and contacts editors at publications in an effort to confirm that a review is forthcoming.
“You have to be ahead of the curve,” she said. “You want to know any challenges.”
Rawat’s “Goddess Creation to Immersion” was screened this past fall at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and at Cinema Village in Manhattan.
Beyond that, however, Rawat and Kanbar offer contradictory accounts over the terms of their arrangement.
Rawat said he understood that his fee would lead to a review, although this was not in the contract that Rawat showed to a reporter, and Kanbar said he never guaranteed a review.
Kanbar also said that Rawat did not do some of the things he was supposed to do, including providing publicity stills from the film and a digital copy of it.
Rawat concedes that he did not give some items to Cinemaflix but said the company could have handled them itself if they were necessary.
Even if he has no chance of winning an Oscar, Rawat is vowing to continue his efforts to promote his documentary. Rawat, who is a devout Hindu, said he felt compelled to make a movie that would honor the Durga Puja religious festival, which is known for the ornate clay sculptures that artisans craft as part of the celebration.
“This art, if it is not supported now and something is done about it, in another 10 years or so, this art will completely vanish,” he said.
One in a series of occasional articles about selling stardom in Hollywood.
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