Behind the films in the running for awards every season are the teams ensuring they are seen and talked about by the right people. Louise Tutt meets the awards whisperers who help great work to stand out from the pack.
It begins on the Croisette in May, sometimes even earlier, as a special kind of buzz attaches itself to an Oscar-worthy film.
Critics thrill to the discovery of a title that may go all the way. Buyers circle, the studios congratulate themselves on getting that particular film into that key festival and distributors sound out the awards consultants, those publicity and marketing experts paid to transform the gentle hum into a gold-plated roar.
“People start jockeying for position around Cannes,” says Liz Miller of the UK’s Premier, one of the most experienced and well-liked names on the awards circuit. “They start to get an idea of how their film might play. They start asking me to bear them in mind. By the time Venice and Toronto roll around, I get calls from people asking me to take on their film.”
Miller and the UK’s other awards consultants are either engaged by UK distributors to work on Bafta campaigns for their films or by US studios and distributors to help co-ordinate the UK strategy for their films’ Oscar campaigns aimed at UK and Europe-based AMPAS members.
“The race is definitely starting earlier and it’s getting more competitive as people realise giving your film an opportunity to have an identity sooner rather than later can be beneficial,” says Bethan Dixon, head of international publicity at UK agency Organic.
Dixon has serious awards form, previously working in-house at Miramax Films on films such as Chicago, The Aviator, Finding Neverland and City Of God, at Focus Features on Brokeback Mountain and The Constant Gardener, at Paramount Vantage the year No Country For Old Men won the best picture Oscar and at The Weinstein Company on the campaigns for The King’s Speech, The Artist and Silver Linings Playbook.
This year at Organic, Dixon is handling the Bafta and UK AMPAS campaigns of Saving Mr. Banks for the Walt Disney Company.
She is modest about how much credit she can take for a film’s success in the awards race: “If I take the credit when they win, I have to take the blame when they don’t win!”
But where Dixon and Miller excel is in the relationships they have with the UK voting bodies. They know their preferences very well, sensing subtle shifts, and adjusting expectations and strategies accordingly.
“It’s about knowing the machinations of the race and how it works,” says one Bafta voter and talent rep who works closely with UK and US awards consultants. “It is about relationships. They know the personalities of these voters, what works and what doesn’t work.”
Getting films seen
And what works above all else, say both Miller and Dixon, who have worked together extensively on past campaigns, is to screen their films as much as possible, creating as many opportunities as they can for a voter to see a film in a cinema.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I consider my only job is to get people to see a film and to see it in a cinema. Or, failing that, to ensure they put a film I’ve got on the top of their DVD pile,” says Miller.
“That is ultimately all I feel I am able to do. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else what to do. I wouldn’t tell Chris Menges what a beautifully shot film is, or tell Paul Greengrass what a well-directed film is, or Ralph Fiennes what a good actor is. But I would presume to invite them all to come and have a look at what someone else did and to do it in as gracious a way as possible.”
This year, like every year, Miller is working on a wide and varied slate of films including Inside Llewyn Davis (Bafta and AMPAS with StudioCanal and CBS Films respectively), Philomena and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (Bafta with Pathé), and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and The Croods (Bafta with 20th Century Fox), to name just a few.
Showing a film as often as possible in a cinema, usually a couple of times a week, is the lynchpin of a US-based campaign too. In Los Angeles, as in London, screening theatres are booked up months in advance, with the 600-seater screen at the Directors’ Guild of America’s Theater Complex on Sunset Boulevard one of the most sought after.
“Our strategy has always been centred around a pretty simple yet pivotal idea: get as many members of AMPAS and all the other key guilds to see the films we are supporting. Preferably on a big screen, the way the motion picture was intended to be seen,” says Steve Elzer, the former head of publicity at Sony Pictures, whose films this year include Captain Phillips and American Hustle.
Screen, screen, screen is the favoured mantra of Los Angeles-based Murray Weissman of Weissman/Markovitz Communications. Another Miramax veteran (it is hard to find a decent awards strategist who isn’t), for the past five years Weissman has worked with Paramount Pictures on its awards campaigns.
This year the films include Nebraska, Labor Day and The Wolf Of Wall Street.
“It’s all about showing a quality film as often as you can to appropriate voters,” says Weissman, who meets weekly with Paramount executives during the season to discuss ideas. “We try to find people to host screenings that might relate to the movie.”
One of the first times he showed Nebraska was at the ArcLight Theatre in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, in early October. After the screening, Weissman gave a small group of Academy voters and industry friends an opportunity to “visit with Bruce Dern”, taking them to lunch with the film’s star. A further screening aimed at actors was hosted by Mark Rydell who directed Dern in The Cowboys in 1972.
Such intimate contact with the talent is not a tactic often used in the UK. If the consultants have access to a film’s actors, director, writer and producers - not always a given on a US film if it is not also opening at awards time in the UK - they prefer a Q&A setting in front of an audience of voters.
If a film has already completed a UK publicity campaign for its UK release, it is rare an actor will return. However, Bradley Cooper did last year and was rewarded with a best actor Bafta nomination for Silver Linings Playbook.
Most consultants believe those campaigns that see directors and actors engage directly with voters tend to have an edge and talent reps will steer their clients to a Bafta Q&A above all else.
“I am sympathetic when somebody brings me a movie star with hollow eyes who hasn’t slept for 72 hours,” says Miller. “But you’ve got to be in it to win it. It’s what we do.
“But some of them really, really don’t care for it and so I say, ‘Good on you,’ and let the film and performance speak for itself.”
She points to smaller independent films such as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild which last year benefited from having a young and enthusiastic film-making team that turned out tirelessly to promote their film. “It’s such an unequal contest to begin with,” says Miller. “You’re pitting flyweights against heavyweights in terms of budget. Sometimes the only assets you have to exploit are your wonderful director and wonderful young movie star.”
Likeability vs art
But the hard sell is to be avoided at all times in the UK. “Selling something is much more day-to-day in the US, in every aspect of life,” says Dixon. “When you’re selling a movie in the UK, you have to be very authentic. The Brits are a very cynical bunch, they are also a very independent bunch. They won’t be manipulated into what to think. You’ve got to listen to what they are responding to.
“An awards campaign is a bit like surfing. You’ve just got to ride it and respond to something rather than try to drive forward a position. When something is good, it finds its voice.”
‘Momentum’ is the word used by everyone on the circuit as films and actors have their ups and downs in the months leading up to the Oscars.
But Weissman believes there is more than mere momentum at play. Now aged 87, it is 40 years since The Sting won the best picture Oscar when Weissman was the head of publicity at Warner Bros in 1974. He has since “nailed” six further best picture campaigns: Kramer Vs Kramer, Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Chicago, Shakespeare In Love and Crash.
“There is a sentimental factor that takes place in terms of acting,” he says. “A man like Bruce Dern is going to be in the running for best actor. He’s put in 40 years and he’s had a great body of work.”
When it comes to the films themselves, Weissman believes likeability is more important than artistic achievement.
“The last series that have won the best picture Oscar are all extremely likeable movies, even though there might have been movies they were competing against that were more excellent,” he suggests.
“But these movies gained momentum, were likeable and were very entertaining. I’m talking about Argo, Slumdog Millionaire and The Artist, a black-and-white movie with no dialogue. People had a good time with them. There are some movies that are being touted now that are hard to like because the subject matter is tough. It may be important and a great piece of work but it might not be likeable.”
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is this year’s troubling must-watch - it earned nine Oscar nominations.
Miller is handling the UK AMPAS campaign of the film for Fox Searchlight. She believes any voter with a conscience will feel they will not be able to vote until they have seen the key films. “It’s a uniquely good year with a lot of really good films,” she says. “You cannot vote until you’ve seen those films. How you vote after you’ve seen the films is another matter entirely.”
Keeping momentum going
It is a challenge to ensure the campaign for a film that has premiered at Toronto or earlier remains fresh and dynamic over several months. It is a position Dixon has been in with Cannes debuts No Country For Old Men and The Artist.
This year she is thankful Saving Mr. Banks instead made its world premiere at BFI London Film Festival before opening in the US and UK to generally positive reviews at the end of November. “Most films that survive the longest and maintain their momentum have both the critical support and the audience support. That can be divided,” she points out.
In this arena at least, print publications, both newspapers and magazines (including the trades), reign supreme. Although most consultants read blogs and websites such as Hitfix, GoldDerby, Hollywood Elsewhere and Awards Daily, and agree they add positively to the general noise around a film, they doubt many of the voting members know they exist. As Weissman points out: “The mean age of Academy voters is around 60. Some of them don’t have cellphones and don’t have computers. They certainly don’t have iPads. They are not going on the internet.”
But the younger generation of voters certainly is and no-one doubts online campaigning is becoming increasingly important, while smaller films are using online links to ensure voters can see their titles too.
Manufacturing and mailing physical screeners to all voters is one of the most expensive - and effective - tools a distributor or studio has at its disposal. Weissman maintains the decision to send screeners of Crash to the entire voting membership of the Screen Actors Guild was a crucial and, at the time, unprecedented, one. He is sure it helped propel the film to its ensemble acting prize at the SAG awards and eventually on to the best picture Oscar.
Weismann, whose company charges Paramount a monthly fee, says he and his four-strong team receive a bonus for a win in certain categories. While that is a common fee structure in the US, the UK consultants do not receive similar payments.
Miller points that out to clients. “I don’t get any more money if the film wins or any less money if the film doesn’t make it past the first hurdle,” she says. “The job is always the same and we do our best. If I know perfectly well that somebody’s dog won’t hunt, I tell them and I tell them not to hire me.
“Some people say, ‘Why would I work with that woman? She’s indiscriminate and looks after everybody and she has too many films on her plate.’ My standard answer is, ‘I am a good parent. A good parent tells every single one of their children they are Albert Einstein and Ava Gardner. If they go to school and find out they’re dumb and funny looking, so be it.’ This is all matters of taste. You have to go in there and fight for people.”