Oscar politics: Ad campaigns, votes and money – lots of it

The 83rd Academy Awards were held last Sunday. As usual, it was an evening of glamour, extravagance and good-looking people. Aside from the award show itself, a permanent fixture of water cooler conversation between the months of November and February is movies in general.

Perhaps this is because the last two months of the calendar year are typically when most Oscar contending films are released. The release of these films is strategically timed by studios in an attempt to channel the recency effect, knowing that Oscar nominations occur in January.

Yet our movie related conversations during these winter months are also the by-product of a covert or “invisible” campaign. Publicity departments whore out their would-be nominees with an added fervour not present in the summer months. A-list stars of films in the running for the Oscars appear on every national talk show, even if their movie is no longer in theaters. Their faces appear ad nauseum on the cover of magazines, so much so that, by February, grocery store checkouts had desensitized me to Natalie Portman’s hotness.

Unlike a national political campaign, the electorate isn’t the general public. Instead, movie studios are courting the votes of the some 6000 members of the “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Membership within this group is technically anonymous but we know it encompasses all the big “movie people” that Hollywood has to offer. Everyone from A-list actors and directors to sound editors have memberships.

Movie studios contractually obligate their actors to do publicity tours during this season to both convince the public to buy movie tickets and also to court the Academy’s voters. This publicity campaign isn’t even about the prestige of a golden Oscar; it’s about the studio’s bottom line. If a film wins Best Picture, it automatically experiences an exponential growth in profit. After Slumdog Millionaire won best picture in 2009, its ticket sales more than tripled from $45 million to a whopping $145 million.

However, there is a certain amount of guiltless satisfaction that we can take in this covert campaign. If a campaign turns ugly, as it often does, the public can delight in the scandals because the outcome only affects the profit of movie studios. Unlike a presidential race, there’s no danger that a Best Picture win for Toy Story 3 will lead to another military occupation of a Middle Eastern nation.

Take last year, for example: during “Oscar Season,” six of the 10 Best Picture nominees came under typical scrutiny in the press: Inglorious Basterds [sic] was in “holocaust denial,” Avatar was racist towards indigenous peoples, A Serious Man and An Education were anti-Semitic while Precious and The Blind Side were insulting to black people.

And to top it off, last year, Nicholas Chartier, a producer of the Iraq war drama, The Hurt Locker, was caught sending an email to members of the Academy soliciting their vote. Chartier asked for his colleagues’ votes so “we will win and not a $500-million dollar film.”

This email violated Academy rules that ban criticism of your opponent. Chartier immediately apologized.

My favorite story from this year’s movie campaign trail involves Best Supporting Actress nominee Melissa Leo. Leo is nominated for her role as Alice Ward, the real life mother of boxers Micky and Dickie Ward in The Fighter. Apparently Leo, frustrated by her lack of exposure on glossy magazines, financed her own personal ad campaign. The 51 year-old actress took out a few ads in Hollywood trade publications that feature a glamour shot of her head underneath the single word: “Consider.”

Naturally, my first reaction to Leo’s personal ad campaign was a chuckle followed by the words, “that’s so sad.”

Yet, after some “consideration” of my own, I realized that all Leo is doing is making the invisible campaign of the Academy Awards public. After all, younger, sexier, A-List stars get free publicity every time they’re asked to appear on a magazine. Leo was just evening out the playing field and was willing to use her credit card to do so.

I’m not a cynical iconoclast that automatically dismisses the Academy Awards as “too commercial.” Oftentimes the Academy still manages to “get it right” regardless of relentless movie studio campaigning.

Still, I’d wager that Kevin Costner, the director of 1990’s Best Picture Dances with Wolves, has a recurring dream. In it, he’s being held down by Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci while his Academy Award is rightfully repatriated by Martin Scorsese who should have won it for Goodfellas.

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