MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

16 Weeks To Oscar: What Works

The horses are most definitely in the gates.

Yes, three potential field-changers – The Revenant, Joy, and The H8ful Eight – loom out there, mostly unseen. But even their stories are largely written in many ways, waiting for rewrites as exposure to the light changes things to whatever degree it does.

The Academy’s 7th Annual Governors Awards will be handed out on Saturday night. There will be three winners. And a hundred contenders. Because as lovely as it is that The Academy sets aside a night for deserving veterans of long-standing in the business, the dominant feature of the evening is the glad-handing of Academy members by actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, etc, etc, etc (list of job titles working the room is about 16 deep), all looking for an edge when it comes to getting an Oscar nomination.

This event ends two weeks or so of such kissy-kissy, launched by The Hollywood Film Awards, a wholly corrupt award for purchase (the silver in this case being the delivery of talent to the big top), which in spite of being cancelled after just one year of being televised by way of the powerful Dick Clark Productions (the company that made a ratings winner and therefore, marketing basic, out of the punchline that is The Golden Globes), still drew a pretty A-list group of hopefuls… and improved their track record by giving out only three awards this season to films that haven’t been released.

A week later, the QVC of Oscar season, vetted with a wink by The Academy in spite of being nothing but a marketing presentation, Deadline’s The Contenders, which has had less and less impact while it has become more and more a piece of the Awards furniture that just sits there and no one really wants to move.

And closing things out are, finally, a legitimate evening of serious, joyful, well-intended honoring… at which talent is walked around to have their gums examined by Academy members for a few hours.

We have long called this period before Oscar nominations, “Phase One.” But really, the September festivals (Venice/Telluride/Toronto/New York) and phase one, this period in late October/early November is phase two, the 10 days after Thanksgiving during which there is a mad scramble to place the last few movies and push the films now in play for months to the top of the minds of all the other voting groups that will offer nominations or awards by mid-December is phase three, and working the angles during what is Hollywood dead time, but movie viewing hot time, from mid-December until voting ends, is phase four.

The post-nominations period (still “Phase Two” as things go), is really a whole different ballgame. It’s no longer about narrowing the field. The field has been narrowed. The period after nominations is, for those who still have the fight in them, about changing gears and going in for the kill. Of course, there are fewer tools, as The Academy has limited the range of direct Academy member approaches from “Do what y’all want… if you want to fly ’em to Macao, just make sure the movie is running during the flight!” to “leave us alone already!” So free shots at Academy membership – meaning ones that can’t be blamed solely on publicists – become much more valuable.

The Golden Globes is top of that list. I estimate that distributors earmark at least $5 million a year to seduce those 80something HFPA members specifically. Being the buffet-hoarders they are, this organization figured out long ago that they can push for the most outrageous things and get them because, 1) They have a network TV show that gets ratings, and 2) They remain a manageable sized group. If Broadcast Film Critics – a group that gets talent more by hammocking the timing to the Globes tree than earning it itself – tried to push studios into the kind of windfall that HFPA members get as a matter of course, the price tag for studios would be over $20 million… which would be too much for too little.

That said, The Critics Choice Awards (which really need a better name) are another useful tool. So are the dinners of both the New York and Los Angeles critics. So is… wait… what else is there? What can we do?! We’re going to lose this thing?!?! How can we lose this to Xxxxxx?!?!?!

Deep breaths… deep breaths…

The big question. Does any of this really change anything? All the time. All the money. All the effort. All the love. Does it change the field position in a real way?

The answer I keep coming back to after years on this beat is that everything matters and nothing matters.

One true influencer who can move 20 votes may actually be the difference between a nomination and no nomination.

Ten serious influencers who can move 100 votes can actually fail to secure a nomination.

The eco-system around this event has become so out of proportion that one well-known influencer has, this season, decided to try to get paid by distributors to share their influence.

The lunches… oh, the lunches. Going to one today, after I write this. Spago. Food will be good. Maybe I’ll see a star’s new baby. There are also breakfasts, brunches, dinners, and cocktails. It wouldn’t be hard to fill your social calendar for 2 months. And it’s all a simple math calculation. $30, $50, $70 a person to feed and drink a voter and give them a few minutes of personal time with the talent is worth… what?

As with everything else, you can only sell what you have. So do you have the movie or the performance? Does your actor or director or producer have the charm and skill to draw people to them in real life, in a 5 minute visit to a table? You really have to have both in order to make the meal event value proposition viable.

In the decade since The Constant Gardener, I have never seen anyone do it better than Rachel Weisz. Great movie. Great performance. But all but dead in Hollywood, months after the film opened around Labor Day. And Rachel showed up… and won an Oscar… an Oscar she deserved, but would not have gotten… might not have been nominated for… were it not for her personal charm and great skill in making everyone she meets feel like she actually wants to know who they are and what they are about. There have been others who have this skill/patience, from the lovely Colin Firth to the relentless Adrien Brody to the brassy, fun, lovable Jackie Weaver. (And others I am not listing… sorry.)

You can be the most charming person in all the land and if your movie/performance doesn’t actually compel voters, you aren’t getting in. You can hide away in a mountainside and barely ever show your face and you can win Best Whatever. There is no exact formula. Some people are actively kept from voters because it will mess things up… just leave it to the performance. Some just don’t want to do the dog & pony. Others, who are not built for such “opportunities” figure it out and make it work like nobody’s business (see: Soon To Be Oscar Winner, Brie Larson).

Then there is the media…

Variety and Deadline, both owned in full or in part by Jay Penske, beefed up on awards staff this season. Will having more voices this make Variety more influential this season? I don’t see why it would, with all due respect to those voices. Variety is Variety and the influence of the trade is not the name over the logo in a pull quote… it’s the logo. Deadline, always working the shadier side of the street, befitting its roots, bought Gold Derby (the second media outlet to do so) to try to make it more relevant in the game. Will it? Did it for the Los Angeles Times? It will allow the site to accrue more page views, which they can then sell. That has value. But it doesn’t have influence.

That said, if a branch reads about a branch in a Kris Tapley column, it could be a field changer, because outisde of the actor, directors, and writers, there is so little coverage (especially thoughtful coverage, which Kris provides) of the other branches.

The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtables have ballooned to near-comic effect. Everyone wants to do them. They are perk-filled, lavish, have added editorial benefits, and everyone who is not a movie star is thrilled to have their photo taken by top-notch photographers before sitting down to have a conversation that almost no one will see… but is well sponsored up and having done them, will be promoted in the magazine, online, etc, which is nearly as good as having voters actually view the conversations. Publicists have, mostly, stopped accepting the demands of exclusivity by The Reporter for participation, but now complain about the four hours or more that these one-hour chats eat on their actors’ schedules. Still, those same publicists fight to get their people in because while it doesn’t matter what they say or do in the conversations, not being in the group is perceived as a slight.

I feel as I should mention my own DP/30 and Celebrity Conversations interviews, which are produced for a fraction and sometimes a fraction of a fraction of what the Hollywood Reporter roundtables cost. They do not come with magazine covers and relentless promotion and hype from the online division, etc. But… without discussing quality or long-term value… my interviews can reach as many, if not more, actual viewers at the THR roundtables… and as with so many things, if out of thousands who may watch, a dozen or twenty or however many Academy voters are compelled by the conversation, that one 30 minute, often one-camera interview, can be the difference between a nomination or a non-nomination. Same, by the way, with the column you are now reading… and Gurus o’ Gold, in terms of the horse race… etc.

Screenings are endless. Every trade and every other media company is fronting them, which is about mining lists, getting around the rules about directly inviting Academy members, etc. The distributors, in almost every case, is still paying for these screenings, and the screening series-ers are charging more and more for the “privilege.” Most people, including Academy members, would be surprised by how much money is in the screening game, both for the companies and the moderators. It’s a business, same as selling ads.

The thing is, no one actually knows where the tipping points are. We all guess a lot. The consultants, brilliant as they often are, are also guessing. Will it be that lunch, that column, that interview, that cover ad, that screening, that stupid award show that isn’t televised, that stupid award show that is televised.

So if you gave the pros a choice, they would have every piece of talent potentially up for an Oscar do every single interview, show, meal, cover, fashion spread, Twitter push, etc, etc, etc for month after month after month until they got nominated. That would be the ultimate campaign (which would be ridiculed by the media, but probably still be effective).

But that is not an option.

Here’s what doesn’t work… not doing anything… unless you are a massive star or the movie is a massive hit… or something like that.

I could make a list for you of a number of presumed contenders who will not be getting nominations based on their lack of effort (at least, so far) this season. Some of them had a legitimate chance. Some did not. But playing it cool is for overdogs, not underdogs.

But that would be a different column. What Doesn’t Work. And that would be much harder, because as much as no one can really pin down what will work, pinning down what will not is all the more elusive. As I have said for years, Academy voting, like marketing, is an affirmative thing. You vote FOR something, not against something else.

And on the morning of the nominations announcement we will all learn what worked. And some will seem obvious. And some will be shocking. But whatever the formula, as simple as The Movie or as complicated as piecing together interest in below-the-liners from 6 branches to squeeze into the race, it will have worked. Until next time.

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8 Responses to “16 Weeks To Oscar: What Works”

  1. theschu says:

    Seriously, what is your beef with The Big Short?

  2. Kate says:

    The last four paragraphs of this piece point to why it is absolutely insane that Michael Fassbender is still #1-3 in so many awards pundits predictions.

    He’s not a movie star. He’s not campaigning at all. The film is a bomb. He’s got some good reviews, but not good enough to win critics awards. What is the supposed incentive for AMPAS to vote for him? Dicaprio, Redmayne, Hanks, Damon, Depp, Smith, Carell, Caine, McKellen, Samuel L. Jackson. All of these contenders are either more famous or more respected than he is, with films that are/will have far less toxic media buzz.

  3. Vanessa says:

    @Kate: Fassbender catapulted to frontrunner status straight out of the first festival screenings. He didn’t just get “some good reviews”. He got unanimous raves. He’s not a movie star, but he clearly has the performance, otherwise people wouldn’t be predicting him. The fact that people are still predicting him even after the disappointing wide release just goes to show he has the performance. He also has the movie; it received glowing reviews, not to mention looming industry support which goes a long way. Obviously the box office hurts his chances of pulling off a win, but it’s not enough to derail him out of the race entirely. Not campaigning will do him more harm than the box office will. As for buzz, the studio knows they have a critics darling on their hands. They’ll most definitely play that up, especially after it starts getting some awards recognition before the Oscars.

  4. Joe says:

    This entire article seems like it screams…..please jay penske, please pick me, MCN, we matter too. Over here please give us a shot at the big leagues like GoldDerby and people like tapley. Too funny

  5. Ffranco says:

    Redmayne is again Remarkable in his role, no way he is not in, Fassbender probably should’ve won supporting already, and deserved one or two lead nominations that he was overlooked for in “Shame” and “Hunger” He is a great actor and deserving this year for Jobs, he’s in. Leo is a good actor, but his best performance to date was for Wolf of Wall Street, and he is not a given, he has been over looked several times before if he isn’t spot on, and sometimes he isn’t! Damon is a VERY likable actor, who is not a GREAT actor, just good, he has won already and doesn’t deserve anything else unless he truly floors us. Depp did very well with another of his great Characters, but sometimes he boarders with over the top character creations, rather than relatable REAL people performances. Greatly overlooked so far is Tom Hardy, who is FABULOUS playing twins in Legend, Terrific performance and Definitely should be in the mix. Ian is a great actor who makes any role he does better. Tom Hanks is Always good, and sometimes great, He’s good in Lies, the Killer performance there is the finely nuanced Mark Rylance who owns that movie. Michael Caine is also always good, and he is good in a movie that a lot of people won’t like or get. So Fassbender and Redmayne should be LOCKS, Hardy deserves to be in there, and the last two slots go to either Leo if he’s great, Depp, Hanks, Caine or Ian.

  6. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Fassbender is both still thought of as a hot young thing and also overdue: a winning combination. He may not be a “movie star” like Tom Cruise, but he’s a strikingly handsome great actor like Daniel Day Lewis: another winning combination. You might not be able to snag a Best Picture nomination if your film underperforms at the box office, but the acting categories are different. Martin Landau was always the front runner for best supporting actor, and he won, for a huge “bomb” at the box office: ED WOOD. It’s not like CRAZY HEART set the box office on fire, either, but Jeff Bridges won for it.

  7. YancySkancy says:

    Ffranco: I don’t know if Damon can get a nod this year or not, but it should be noted that his Oscar win was for screenwriting, not acting, so I doubt any voter would take that into consideration when assessing his performance.

  8. Bob Burns says:

    Terrific column. thank you.

    One day I would like to see an overview of the universe of awards season publicists, all of the main ones, their efforts in specific campaign seasons with names and lots of direct quotes. Their involvement in campaigns from season to season. Not an expose, a comprehensive, say, history.

    For obvious reasons, such a long article, or book, will probably never happen… but, as an outsider looking in, it would help fill in the big blank space in the overall picture.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon