Saturday February 21, 2015
For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration: The Hollywood Oscar Campaigns The Public Never Sees.
The Oscars have a long and interesting history.
They are the most prized awards in the entertainment industry, and even a nomination can change fortunes overnight.
Since the late 1920s, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been charged with voting for the best movies every year.
The results are secretly tallied, and the envelopes are sealed until the big night.
In the 86 years of the Academy Awards, there have been – surprisingly - six ties.
The first one was in 1931, where Frederic March, who starred in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, tied with Wallace Beery, star of The Champ. Both took home Best Actor Oscars.
The second time it happened was in 1949. Two films tied in the Best Documentary Short category.
It took 37 more years until the Oscars saw its next draw, when two films got the same number of votes in the Best Documentary category in 1986.
Nine years later, in 1995, two films tied for Best Short Film Live Action.
At the recent 2013 Academy Awards, presenter Mark Walhberg let Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall know they'd be taking the same award home that night – tying in the Best Sound Editing category.
But the tie that most people remember happened at the 1969 Academy Awards.
As film star Ingrid Bergman went to announce the Best Actress winner - she was clearly… surprised:
Katharine Hepburn won her third of four historic Oscars, and Barbara Streisand won her first for Funny Girl.
The fact that there can be ties at the Academy Awards makes one thing very clear:
It's possible to win by one single vote.
Knowing that, movie studios pull out all the stops to win Oscars, leaving no stone – or voter - unturned.
The strategies used by Hollywood movie studios to influence Academy voters is fascinating. It involves millions of dollars, trade advertising, parties, swag, the White House, law suits, and even trips to actors old age homes.
And all of this Oscar campaigning has one thing in common.
The public never sees it…
Way back in 1927, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, the second mighty M in MGM, was hosting a luncheon for some colleagues at his home.
The Motion Picture business was the 4th largest industry in America at that time and it was experiencing some growing pains. Specifically, there was intense competition between studios for talent. Each hoarded it's own technological advances and unions were beginning to emerge.
Louis B. Mayer, who by the way, was raised in New Brunswick the way, suggested to the group the movie industry needed to organize in order to deal with those issues.
That idea eventually became the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This new Academy had several branches, one of which was the Awards of Merit Committee. Its mandate was to arrange an annual event to celebrate the movie industry.
Not long after, on May 16, 1929, the first Academy Awards were held at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.
While the monetary benefits of winning an Academy Award were yet to come, the behind-the-scenes influencing of voters had already arrived.
Silent film star Mary Pickford, who was born in Toronto by the way, was a founding member of the Academy.
She had been nominated as Best Actress for the film, Coquette. In those early days, a handful of Academy judges voted on all the awards.
So Pickford invited those judges over to her palatial home, poured them tea, and proceeded to make the case for why she should win the award. She must have been pretty convincing.
Because at the second Academy Awards presentation in 1930, the Best Actress trophy went to Mary Pickford.
As each year went by, the Academy Awards became a bigger and more important event.
The first real Oscar campaign ad was created by none other than Louis B. Mayer. He ran an advertisement in Hollywood trade publications saying that his 1935 film, entitled, Ah, Wilderness, should be nominated for an Academy Award.
The ad showed a cartoon of MGM's famous lion mascot holding an Oscar, with a headline that said, "You've given so much, Leo, get ready to receive."
But, it was an auspicious start to Oscar campaign ads, as Leo came up empty-handed.
Five years later, in 1940, RKO created an ad to persuade Academy members to vote for Ginger Rogers as Best Actress in its picture entitled, Kitty Foyle. The ad contained something no other Oscar ad ever had before - it was filled with positive reviews.
This RKO ad also went down in history for another reason – because it was the first successful Oscar ad – as Ginger Rogers did indeed win Best Actress.
From that point on, the practise of placing positive reviews in ads was added to every studio's playbook.
In what many consider the first real all-out Oscar campaign, actress Joan Crawford hired press agent Henry Rogers to mastermind a strategy for her to win Best Actress for the 1945 film, Mildred Pierce.
Noting that MGM's open solicitation of votes for Ah, Wilderness had failed, her press agent decided on a more under-the-radar approach. He planted items in gossip columns, he suggested stories to friends in the press, and made Crawford available for any and all interviews. His plan was to keep Crawford's name in the papers from the first day of shooting through to the Oscar vote – a tactic that had never been tried before.
By the time of the Academy Awards, Crawford was the odds-on favourite to win. But, at the last moment, Crawford panicked, and refused to attend the ceremony, fearing she would lose.
Press agent Henry Rogers simply told the press Crawford was at home in bed with a 104-degree temperature. Then immediately dispatched hair and make-up people to her house.
And when the press raced to her home, they found her in bed, wearing a photogenic negligee, with full hair and make-up, cradling the Oscar her press agent had slipped into her arms only moments before.
The Joan Crawford Oscar strategy was a lesson not lost on the other studios.
RKO became the first studio to use the words "For Your Consideration" in Oscar advertising in 1947.
To this day, almost all Oscar marketing to the industry bears these three words. Trade publications like Variety swell to four times their usual size, filled with For Your Consideration ads, saying For Your Consideration, this film as Best Picture nominee. For Your Consideration, this person as Best Supporting Actor, etc.
The phrase, "For Your Consideration," hit just the right tone – it hid the shamelessness of the intent, and gave Academy voters the feeling the studio was merely offering up… food for thought.
No heavy influencing, no strong-arming, no pressure. Or so it seemed.
Then a big change swept Hollywood.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court forbid studios from owning their own theatre chains in a landmark antitrust case. This decision had a profound affect on Hollywood – and it meant studios would have to rely much more on marketing to make a picture profitable.
In 1955, the trailer for the film Marty featured Burt Lancaster.
But Lancaster wasn't the star of the film. As a matter of fact, Lancaster wasn't even in the film. He was the producer, and his production company became infamous when Marty won Best Picture that year.
Because it was the only movie in history where the producers spent $50,000 more on the film's Oscar campaign – than they did making the entire movie.
Clearly, winning Academy Awards wasn't just about the merits of the film, it was also about the merits of marketing the film.
Winning an Oscar, or just being nominated, can mean many different things.
For actors, it means they're more in demand, get access to better scripts, and they enjoy a big multi-million dollar salary jump per picture.
For studios, an Oscar win means it can attract better talent.
It can revive a movie that has already had its run in theatres. It means better international sales.
It means banks are more amenable to extending larger lines of credit.
According to Box Office Mojo.com, the movie Chicago got a $100 million boost after it won Best Picture.
Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby went from just $8.4 million pre-nomination, to gross over $90 million after its Best Picture win.
And even though war movies aren't typically big money makers, Eastwood's American Sniper broke all January box office records just days after it received six Oscar nominations.
When you think of the remarkable influence of the Academy Awards, it's surprising to note how small the Academy really is.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is comprised of about 5,800 people.
Most of them live in Los Angeles.
The median age is 62. 94% are Caucasian, and 77% are male.
The only way to become a member of the Academy is to be nominated for an award, or to be invited by other members.
There are 17 branches, and the biggest, most powerful one is the actors bloc, with over 20% of the vote.
When voting for Oscar nominations, members can only vote within their own category. In other words, actors can only vote for actors, directors can only vote for other directors, etc. But when it comes time to vote for the actual Oscars, the Academy allows everybody to vote in all categories.
Then there's all the various craft branches – like sound, set design, special effects and film editors. These blocs hold sway in the voting, because there are so many of them.
The Guardian once called this group the "steak-eaters." They are mostly red-blooded males who like large scale, solid narratives, like Braveheart and Titanic. This preference is also believed to have led to Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain, considered one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.
And because of the median age of the Academy, it could explain why a film like The Social Network lost to The King's Speech - because a movie about Facebook wasn't as relevant to voters in their 60s and 70s.
Many members of the Academy aren't even in the business anymore.
Delores Hart, who starred with Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You, became a nun in 1970. She's still a voting member of the Academy.
All things considered, the Academy tries to make it as fair and equitable as possible by imposing strict rules. Studios, on the other hand, are brilliant at working the angles.
The number one job during Oscar season is to get Academy voters to see the nominated movies.
Beginning in 1989, videotapes of all eligible films – called screeners - were sent out to the voting members. These days, its DVDs and secure online viewings.
But influencing Oscar votes involves much more than screeners.
Between the time nominations are announced, and the actual awards broadcast, the Academy doesn't allow overt campaigning. So most Oscar promotion happens in the six months leading up to the nominations.
Studios stage frequent meet-and-greets between Academy members and movie casts at theatre showings. There's a reason for this - all studios want members to see their movies on the big screen – instead of at home on their iPads – so inviting glamorous actors to screenings is the best way to get members off their couches and out to theatres.
Studios give Academy members lots of knick-knacks and elaborate press books. For the movie The Decendants, which was set in Hawaii, voters were sent customized ukeleles. Studios prepare beautifully art-directed lists of their movies and personnel For Your Consideration.
One anonymous member told The Hollywood Reporter he received so much swag for the movie Lincoln, about the only thing he didn't get was Lincoln condoms.
Fully-bound copies of screenplays are sent to the Writer's branch. CDs of nominated songs are sent to the Music branch.
For years, studios sent out lavish gifts to voters. But the Academy has now forbidden that practice.
Yet studios are still very resourceful when it comes to generating Oscar votes.
During the period between Christmas and New Year, studios actually set up screenings in places like Hawaii and Aspen – because that's where a large percentage of Academy members vacation.
Savvy studios, like Harvey Weinstein's company, long ago realized that one vote can make all the difference. That's why their Oscar operation resembles the precision of a Zero Dark Thirty mission.
They host endless private and by-invitation-only screenings in homes and theatres.
They instructed publicists to phone members at home to ask if they received the screeners, then ask what they thought of the film – until the Academy eventually forbid direct calls.
So studios hit on the idea of hiring third parties to phone members at home - until the Academy forbid that, too.
Some studios even arrange screenings at the Motion Picture Retirement Home hoping to influence the Academy members who live there – even the ones on life support. Because every Oscar vote counts.
Films compete to be screened at the White House, to get bragging rights to influence Academy voters.
When Harvey Weinstein arrived at a screening of his silent movie, The Artist, he arrived with two of Charlie Chaplin's granddaughters on his arms.
The message to voters – the descendants of the greatest silent film star in history support this film.
Weinstein managed to secure an astounding five Oscars for The Artist – including Best Picture. That took a massive behind-the-scenes Oscar campaign, considering it was a black & white, silent, French film.
Sometimes, actors take it upon themselves to campaign for Oscars. Back in 1988, actress Sally Kirkland took out her own "For Your Consideration" ads for her role in a small, obscure movie entitled, Anna. She hired two press agents, wrote personal letters to Academy members, and reportedly got her godmother, Shelley Winters, to make 150 phone calls to voters. Many in the industry were appalled.
But she scored the Best Actress nomination.
In 2011, actress Melissa Leo took out her own "For Your Consideration" ads. She had already won The Critics Choice Award, a Golden Globe and the SAG award for her role as the boxing managing mother in the film, The Fighter.
But she wasn't getting onto the covers of any magazines leading up to the Oscars – as many Best Supporting Actress contenders often do.
The lack of media interest - according to Melissa Leo – was because she was in her 50s.
So, she paid for ads that showed her in glamorous dresses with the word "Consider…" at the top. The campaign created quite a controversy.
Many Oscar consultants felt it was overkill and unseemly, saying Academy voters tend to be repelled by anyone who actively says they WANT to win.
But, when the envelope was opened at the Awards that night, the winner… was Melissa Leo:
All viewers at home saw was Melissa Leo hoisting her Oscar. What they didn't see was the campaign she hoisted to help get her there.
While the Academy tightens its rules every year, the drive to win is powerful.
And no story sums that up better than the case of The Iron Cross versus Variety Magazine.
Back in 2010, Calibra Pictures, the studio behind the film The Iron Cross, (which would turn out to be actor Roy Scheider's final picture), claimed that Variety convinced it to spend $400,000 on an Oscar campaign in the trade magazine. The promotion would include front page ads, online ads, targeted DVD distribution and inclusion in an awards screening series sponsored by Variety.
But, once the campaign started running, Variety ran a review of the movie that called it, quote: "Hackneyed, preposterous, mediocre, choppy and uncertain."
Calibra was incensed. It immediately charged breach of contract, fraud and unfair business practices. Clearly, Calibra couldn't believe Variety would help them plan a $400,000 Oscar campaign in the same pages where they would eventually trash the movie in a review.
But when the Supreme Court ruled on the suit, it found in favour… of Variety.
Advertising and editorial are church and state, it said. And Variety's review was protected under free speech.
Proving once again that all is fair in love and Oscar warfare.
That's how news reports of Hoffman's death began on February 2nd, 2014.
Winning an Oscar brands a person for life.
While it only costs $500 to make an Oscar statue, the possession of one can attract untold millions.
As we sit at home and watch the Academy Awards unfold, very few of us witness the incredible behind-the-scenes campaigning that has led up to that night.
Because if a film can win Best Picture with a single solitary vote, studios will scorch the earth looking for that voter.
As the fate of movies and careers shift on Oscar night, it's remarkable to think those results are voted on by a very small group of industry people.
And one nun.
All of whom have been in the cross-hairs of multiple Oscar marketing crusades.
It could be argued that the point of the Academy Awards ceremony isn't to announce the best movies of the year. The point is to create a big, glamorous four-hour ad for the film industry.
So the next time you see an unlikely film win the Best Picture award in an upset, it might not be because it's the better film.
It just might be because it had the better Oscar campaign…
…when you're under the influence.