Some call it trench warfare. Opposing directors, film artists and actors do battle at countless L.A. receptions and screenings for the chance to acquire a coveted Academy Award.
During a rare moment of calm, Documentary Feature Oscar nominee David France, director/co-producer of the AIDS activist feature How to Survive a Plague, focuses on his daily doses of Hollywood glamor, whether group photos at the Oscar nominee luncheon or red carpet poses at preliminary awards ceremonies leading up to the Nothing-Else-Matters Oscars Sunday February 24 at the Dolby Theatre.
The calm soon disappears like the midday coffee in France’s cup and he’ll be back to grinding out his awards campaign duties until final Oscar ballots, via paper or, for the first time, e-vote, come due (voting closed February 19). France may resemble a gentlemanly college professor with his salt-and-pepper beard and bookworm glasses but he’s a hardened veteran of showbiz trench warfare, going back a year to the Sundance premiere for How to Survive a Plague and what turned out to be the sleepless start of its unexpected journey towards an awards campaign.
"We had one of those Sundance negotiations that you read about in the ‘90s that went until 4:30 in the morning with shuttle diplomacy," France tells us. "It was just crazy and by 4:30 we would have signed anything. I think that was the plan, just to wear us down. But at the end of that long parry we felt comfortable going to IFC Films and for them to bring the film out to the general public."
For France, his fellow Oscar nominees and the army of entertainment publicity and marketing professionals supporting them, this is the upstream moment with the 85th Oscars ceremony itself within reach. You can almost hear host Seth "I’m So Ready For This" MacFarlane crack his opening monologue joke.
The creative biz of Oscar campaigns is secretive by nature, jointly managed by in-house studio awards teams as well as outside publicity agencies hired for their awards season expertise.
"We’ll do Academy campaigns for different pictures that we have been part of from the start and there are basically two approaches," says John McMahon, President and General Manager, Art Machine, the print and creative division of Trailer Park. "One approach is now that there’s a bunch of buzz about the movie, what is a key scene that might not have been featured in the marketing but will pop into a voter’s mind if they have already seen the movie?
So it becomes a reminder vehicle. Is there a key moment, a key scene or a key piece of branding that we may or may not have already worked on? It may be something fresh or something that has to be developed. Remember this great scene that really defines the movie? Another approach is pulling in critiques and accolades along with your classic branding material."
Some, like DreamWorks’ Lincoln team, follow McMahon’s advice and in addition to the countless "For Your Consideration" ads also create extraordinary networking events and promotional materials equal to the prestige and widespread popularity of the Steven Spielberg historical drama—from a special House of Representatives screening, an address at Gettysburg National Military Park, a White House event with President Obama and individual thank you letters from Spielberg to a lush coffee-table book "Lincoln: A Cinematic and Historical Companion" for the press.
Others, like France, or Chilean director Pablo Larraín, a second-time Foreign Language Film nominee for his historical drama No, are mounting the cinematic equivalent of a product launch; trying to convince voters to take the time to watch their low-profile movies.
"One woman came up to me at a luncheon we threw and she said, 'I put the DVD in when I first got it and I saw the picture of that first image of the man in the hospital bed and I stopped it right away,’" France adds. "But she wanted to come and talk to me so she watched the movie and saw that it wasn’t all what she was afraid of watching.
"What’s that sport they play in Canada? Curling? Our campaign is like curling. We just have to make the ice smooth enough to get people to come down. That’s what it is. It’s not trickery or sleight of hand. I just want people to see the movie and I’m confident that the more people who see the movie the more they’re going to understand this powerful story is s story they don’t know."
Changes in the Oscar calendar regarding short-list categories like Documentary and Foreign Language Film and an earlier announcement of the final nominees require more campaign ads, more aggressive release and re-release strategies and the need for publicists who know each and every voting rule to come aboard earlier to manage extended campaigns.
"You have to make sure that your film is much higher profile now than you used to," says Fredell Pogodin, a veteran awards publicist and owner of L.A. public relations firm Fredell Pogodin & Associates. "You have an advantage if branch members are familiar with your film and if people know who you are. If you’re a documentary director like Alex Gibney (Oscar winner for Taxi To The Dark Side and director of Maxima Mea Culpa), they’re more likely to watch your film right? But a lot of times, a lot of these filmmakers aren’t necessarily known. It’s their first film."
Pull back the awards curtain and the similarities emerge between creating an entertainment marketing team skilled at winning an Oscar and building a marketing team that knows how orchestrate a new product launch.
Granted, Oscar campaigns feel small compared to major brand launch by primarily focusing on one center of the universe, Los Angeles, a company town with a single power center, the entertainment industry.
Still, the similarities between campaigning on behalf of a consumer brand and a movie are evident. A specialty distributor like Sony Pictures Classics invests in multi-platform campaign for the Austrian drama Amour to increase box office for the movie as well as bring additional prestige to the company.
There’s one more connection an Oscar campaign shares with awards marketing in other industries. Film companies are spending more than ever before.
"Obviously, there is a financial upside for any film that wins major awards, especially when you consider the life of say, a Best Picture winner," says BeBe Lerner, SVP at ID Public Relations. "Part of our job is to be prudent and give smart spending advice. In the beginning it may be smart to spend like we’re going home with the gold, but as races come into focus, a studio may be better served by shifting some of those funds to reach consumer audiences."
In the final days of Oscar voting, there were promotional events watched by fans—Robert De Niro breaking down during an interview on Silver Linings Playbook and his co-star Jennifer Lawrence joking about wearing sweatpants to the Oscar ceremony—and a final push of screenings and awareness for voters still making up their minds.
It all leads up to Oscars Sunday, already a broadcast hit thanks to ABC selling out its inventory of ads, and ceremony producer Craig Zadan aiming to make it a critical hit in its own right with MacFarlane hosting, a tribute to James Bond, musical performances by Barbra Streisand, Adele and Norah Jones.
Octavia Spencer, last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner for The Help, makes a return appearance as a presenter.
For this year’s nominees who are still thick in the trench warfare of campaigning, she shares with us this advice.
"I thought campaigning meant shaking hands, ‘Hi, I’m Octavia and we’re trying to get our movie out there for awards season.’ I didn’t realize that campaigning was basically going to different events and meeting all of these filmmakers and all of these voters. I’m glad I went on that experience because I got meet these luminaries like George Clooney and Steven Spielberg and all of these people who’ve influenced me as an artist. So I would say to anybody who’s on that path to just go with it. Go to everything. Enjoy it and love the moment because you will never experience anything else like it and if you allow yourself to be looking too far ahead you won’t see just how beautiful the position you’re in is. I enjoyed every aspect of it. Was I tired? Absolutely! I’m glad I did everything I did."
Winning an Oscar. Cooking your way to the final round of Top Chef. Gaining a spot on American Idol. Wowing Tim Gunn on Project Runway. Different degrees but these are all cultural shows of competitiveness that bind creators.
One thing is clear; we are all in awards season, all year, everywhere. Do you have your acceptance speech ready? Will you be angry if you don’t get the chance to give it?
"If you heed the adage, "it’s an honor to be nominated," you’ll do just fine," Lerner tells us. "If you place a greater value on winning, beyond receiving a recognition from your peers, you’re bound to be disappointed. People respect grace and gratitude, way more than competitive backbiting. And you don’t want to be the bitter person at the Governor’s Ball, complaining to someone who may decide the fate of your next film. The general public is obsessed over the fantasy and the fashion. But trust me, by the end of award season, everyone in town is very happy to put away their tuxes and black cocktail dresses and get back to work."