Essays · Movies

We Can Fix Oscar Campaigns If We Kill Them with Fire

Or just move the Academy Awards to the front of the season, and spare a lot of bloodshed.
Oscars Campaign Reform
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2019

And the winner is…WHA? HUH? No way. No friggin’ way. They did not deserve that Oscar. Mad Max: Fury Road was the obvious superior film. I mean, sure, Spotlight is a solid flick, and Leo ate a real liver and transformed himself into a genuine mountain man for The Revenant, but George Miller transcended genre and delivered a film that will consume pop culture for decades to come. It’s a bonafide masterpiece, people. How could the Academy not see that?

We’ve all been there. Maybe you weren’t as devastated in 2016 as I was, but you’ve felt a similar pang of rage. Was it Shakespeare in Love reigning supreme over Saving Private Ryan, or are you still holding a grudge from when Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) took down both Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II) and Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) in 1975? Certainly, no one is cool with Crash surpassing Brokeback Mountain in 2006. This is madness.

The Oscars are not fair. Sure, we don’t really expect them to be. Art is subjective after all and blah, blah, blah. Where the rage comes from is the boodle of cash required to get one film to block all others from an Academy voter’s viewpoint. Nabbing a little gold man is an election like any other, and only the richest of the rich make it to the stage. Sorry Sorry to Bother You, you never had a chance.

According to The Guardian, one campaign can cost a studio anywhere between $5-8 million. This figure falling not only on the marketing and PR firms but also on the distributors. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly the talent back and forth to events promoting the film, specialized and private screenings of the film, general advertisement including print and television commercials, and $300,000 set aside exclusively for the production and mailing of screeners. Oh yeah, let’s not forget about that other heap of cash thrown at scoring awards from the shows leading up to the Oscars.

Buzz is everything. Academy voters are not sitting next to you every Friday night at the multiplex. They practically need a cattle prod to get their butts into a theater, and more often than not they rely on screeners to mentally download the film before the ballot deadline. Of course, a screener is not enough. Each Academy voter is drowning in piles upon piles of DVDs. Ultimately, it’s the studio-enforced buzz that pricks up their ears and steers their eyes.

These studio driven campaigns are designed to get their films in front of as many registered eyes as possible. They achieve this by purchasing ad space, throwing enormous parties, and blasting screeners into mailboxes. They lobby hard, concoct socially relevant narratives, and fight dirty when necessary. Harvey Weinstein and Miramax are often credited as the first to sling vicious globs of mud and money to get the job done back in ’99. Today, we live in his domain.

As filmmakers and actors begin to make their rounds through the awards circuit, picking up trophies at the Golden Globes, the SAGs, the PGAs, etc, venomous “whisper campaigns” begin to trickle into the trades. Singling out the competition is strictly forbidden, but the emergence of negative publicity around awards season appears calculated and anything but coincidental. Last year, conversation swelled around the racist implications of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the plagiarism of The Shape of Water, and Gary Oldman‘s alleged anti-semitism. Tracking their origins can be difficult, but their impact is darkly distracting.

Last year, the Academy attempted to reign in campaigning. According to their guidelines, screeners can no longer include photographs, key art, or graphics. The discs can have a brief description free of embellishment as well as a simplistic “for your consideration” label. Studios cannot send more than one email/hardcopy mailing per week, but they don’t specify how many screeners you can send in one shipment. There can be no duplicates of screeners, but a studio can send one physical copy and one digital copy if they so desire. And they do.

The Academy has also reduced the amount of money thrown at lunches and dinners for voting members. After the announcement of nominations, studios are not permitted to invite voters to “parties, dinners, lunches, or other non-screening events that promote nominated films.” The exception being pre-reception and after-parties attached to other recognized industry awards events, and “reasonable refreshment” may be provided during and after screenings. Still, that’s plenty of opportunity for tasty beverages and free meals.

I want to kill Oscar campaigning with fire; put a torch to every screener, bright light event, and organized luncheon. You didn’t get out to a theater to see all the nominated movies? Too bad, we’re taking your membership away. You love movies, you make movies, so you can make the time to pay respect and celebrate them. Dammit. Unfortunately, I think the Weinstein is already out of the bag, and there is no putting the beast back again.

Ah. We could demand more regulations. We could attempt a reduction of the money spent by studios to buy the attention of voters. More loopholes will be found; more money will be spent anyway. After decades of practice, Hollywood will not be denied.

There is only one solution. You have to beat them to the punch. You have to rob them of the opportunity to spend that cash, to grease those palms. We gotta move the Oscars.

As we experience every year, by the time we actually flip on ABC to watch the Academy’s celebration of the art and the craft, we have tracked mostly the same group of films over nearly a dozen other ceremonies. The awards season calendar is stacked. The insanity kicks off early in November with the People’s Choice Awards, the Oscars Governors Awards, the Gotham Awards, the National Board of Review winners, and the New York Film Critics Circle winners.

In December, the AFI Top 10 are announced. Total publicity bombardment erupts in January with the National Society of Film Critics Awards, the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choices Awards, the Producers Guild of America Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Finally, early February closes it all out with (take a deep breath) the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Oscars Scientific and Technical Awards, the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, the Costume Designers Guild Awards, the Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Guild Awards, the Cinema Audio Society Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Not to mention the nearly infinite announcements from local critics societies. By the time we get to the Oscars at the end of the month, the voters purchased, and the winners set.

We have to condense the awards chronology. By moving the Academy Awards to the beginning of January, you instantly rob studios of their most precious commodity: time. The scramble to snatch attention will still be there, but they will have less time and opportunity to play their tricky tactics. There will definitely be fewer manipulative speeches heard at podiums as genuine shock and surprise will be re-inserted into the awards, and following ceremonies such as the DGAs, PGAs, and the like will also gain a breath of fresh air. Although, maybe fewer attendees will show up to those parties. That wouldn’t be so bad, either.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)