When I watch the Oscars, I watch for 2 reasons: to see all the dresses, and to win money off my dearest friends. I often don’t agree with the choices, or even that awards should be given for art at all. At least half the time I think the host is a drag and the speeches are pretentious. But I’ll give respect where respect is due: it’s not easy to take home an Oscar. You can’t even earn an Oscar by acting, no matter how hard you try. No, an Oscar must be bought, and Oscars don’t come cheap.
Variety has estimated that an Academy Award will set you back somewhere in the vicinity of 3-10 MILLION DOLLARS. It’s not George Clooney who’s paying out of pocket, mind you. It’s the studios. An Academy Award will likely give their movie a push in the box office, or certainly in at-home rentals (Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby went from just $8.4 million pre-nomination, to gross over $90 million after its Best Picture win). It’ll put a fancy gold sticker on the DVD box in stores. And it’s a shiny piece of hardware not only for their office, but for any movie poster coming out of their studio for the next several years. Prestige!
If you’re anything like me, you may have cringed over some blatant Oscar name-dropping. Take Collateral Beauty for example (this is the first and last time it’ll be mentioned in the same sentence as Oscar this year, poor dud). The trailers likely introduced the stars as “Oscar winner Helen Mirren”, “Oscar winner Kate Winslet”, “Oscar nominee Edward Norton,” “Oscar nominee Will Smith,” “Oscar nominee Keira Knightly,” “Oscar nominee Naomie Harris,” and “plain old Michael Pena.” Well, okay, not so much the plain old, but you catch my drift. It’s always a little embarrassing when inevitably someone in the cast has been left out. Michael Pena might be a little put out with his ranking, but on a movie like this, the studio will do everything in its power to remind you that the cast is stellar (the story: well, that’s another question – hopefully we’ve blinded you with all the Oscar talk!).
Two rounds of ballots go out to Academy members. The first went out to secure nominations. Now everyone can vote on who will actually win. People are encouraged to only vote if they know enough about the category to make an informed choice (possibly the costumer knows little about visual effects), and are encouraged to see all of the nominees in order to judge accurately. But these Hollywood types are busy people! They can’t be hitting up the cinema like us regular folk! Solution: studios can send out free screeners so big important people can watch the contenders in the privacy of their own homes. It will cost the studio about $300 000 to do that (it’s a lot of free DVDs – and there’s always a chance of piracy) but that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to buying an Oscar.
Next you have your print and TV ads, billboards and all the rest of the ‘For Your Consideration’ items to be paid for: all kinds of crap with the movie’s name tarted out all over it. And then there’s the constant round of balls, parties and teas, plus the special screenings with the stars in attendance, and all the talk shows and private lunches and everything else that come with pressing the flesh and hoarding votes. An Oscar campaign is like a political campaign. You have to be bold and ruthless. You have to want it, and you have to tell everyone you’re running. But you also have to pretend not to want it too much, while basically begging for every vote you can get.
If you’re really serious about toppling over, say, Natalie Portman, you may even hire an Oscar consultant. Yup, that’s a real job, and it’s their heavily-paid job to predict what voters are thinking, and try to swing it in your favour. Meanwhile, you’re going to rack up ridiculous airmiles, wear millions of dollars in outfits and jewels (about half a mil per event), and talk about the same damn movie over and over at press junkets for a good 9-10 months. You can make a human baby in less time!
Since we’re in the nitty gritty of Oscar voting now, there are some rules as to what the studio can do officially, so they’ve invented ways around, of course. The Santa Barbara film festival exists only to give fake awards to actors and industry in order to remind Academy voters who they are (this year, Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle, Denis Villeneuve, and Kenneth Lonergan ALL received Outstanding Director – suspicious much?).
If that made Damien Chazelle nervous then he could always start a whisper campaign about how Kenneth Lonergan needs to coat himself in pickle brine in order to fall asleep. That sounds like I’m joking and indeed I’ve never heard anything about Lonergan and any kind of pickle, but Harvey Weinstein is famous for being – er – quite competitive, stopping at nothing, including the nasty rumour mill, and lavishing expensive gifts on Academy members just out of the “goodness” of his heart, no strings attached (except vote for my movie or I’ll blackball you forever).
This year there is arguably a three way frontrunner for best picture: La La Land, Manchester By The Sea, and Moonlight. So all three will ramp up spending in order to compete.Manchester was made by Amazon, who has deep pockets and is looking to establish itself as a powerhouse. Moonlight on the other hand was an indie film, with a budget of just 5 million. This is where the personal touch comes in: it’s not enough to take out print ads (what are those?) – studios are making sure that the stars are available for selfies with each and every voter. Brie Larson, who took home best actress last year for Room said that her worst Oscar fear was “getting pinkeye” – she shook a LOT of hands, and god knows where they’ve been!
Harvey Weinstein is pretty much responsible for the modern, despicable Oscar campaign. He pours lots of money into wins, and he gets results: over 300 Academy Award nominations to date. 1990’s My Left Foot was Harvey’s first big campaign and he went hard: he had Daniel Day-Lewis testify to the Senate for the Disability Act; he chased people on holiday; he even set up screenings at the Motion Picture Retirement Home. He spent a record setting amount securing a Shakespeare in Love upset over Saving Private Ryan, and insisted the British crew move to Hollywood for the duration of award season. In 2002 he mounted a smear campaign against A Beautiful Mind, accusing the film of editing out the biography’s mention of homosexuality, and later pointed to “Jew-bashing passages” from the book. To take advantage of a loophole, he rereleased City of God 3 times to eventually secure it some nominations; it was first eligible in 2002 but received nothing, so Harvey kept it in theatres for 54 long weeks. He targeted Jewish voters for nominations for The Reader by screening at Jewish cultural events and seeking endorsements form the Anti-Defamation League and from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. While campaigning for Inglorious Basterds, he engaged a whisper campaign against Hurt Locker, hiring soldiers to come forward and call out the film’s lack of realism. When The King’s Speech went up against The Social Network, he had Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger host star-filled events. With The Artist, he reached out to Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters. In 2013 he went so far as to hire Obama’s campaign manager to bolster The Silver Linings Playbook
Harvey’s not quite a pioneer though. The first real campaign reaches back to 1945 when Joan Crawford hired a press agent to get her a win for Mildred Pierce. He kept her name in the news and planted items in the gossip columns. Still, she was too nervous to attend the ceremony, fearing a loss. Her agent, however, dispatched hair and makeup to her home while cover for her: a fever of 104 degrees, I believe he said. She won, and when press raced to her house, she was sitting up in bed, full hair and makeup, sexy negligee, and an Oscar cradled in her arms. Success!
Nowadays you have to have swag. When The Descendants was up for an Oscar, it sent out personalized ukuleles to members. More perplexingly, the team behind Lincoln sent out turkey roasting pans. Universal sent out iPod shuffles that just happened to be pre-loaded with music form Les Miserables. Disney sent out toy bows and arrows for Brave. None of this is exactly legal, but studios are willing to bend the rules to secure wins, and why on earth would the gift recipient ever complain? So yeah, the Oscars are a complete sham – or worse: they’re a 4-hour movie commercial.