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.