In this eventful and entertaining election year, the campaigning is not limited to Hillary and Bernie and Marco and Trump. Also out there stumping—for another high-profile and much-coveted albeit very different kind of prize—were Leo and Brie and Saoirse and Sly. And Spielberg and Pitt. And Paramount and Fox and Disney.
Even before this year's Academy Award nominees were announced on the morning of Jan. 14 in Beverly Hills, Calif., the Hollywood publicity machine had already kicked into high gear. Early on came the film festivals, followed by public appearances, profiles by major media, the talk show circuit and eventually those ubiquitous "for your consideration" ads in the trades—all of it careful to follow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' rules regulating Oscar campaigns.
But make no mistake: There are plenty of promotional tools that are at the nominees' disposal—and those involved in the annual marketing blitz around the Oscars take their work every bit as seriously as those behind any White House run, admittedly with much better clothes. According to conservative estimates, anywhere from $3 million to more than $10 million is invested to lobby academy voters on behalf of the Best Picture nominees alone—that includes sending screeners to voting members, buying digital and print ads, and throwing lavish parties. Because there is no clear front-runner across a number of categories, insiders note a definite uptick in the number of pre-Oscars shindigs this year. "I feel like I've been on a cruise ship," cracks veteran Oscars watcher Pete Hammond.
Naturally, ego, bragging rights and old-fashioned competition are all elements of this annual bacchanalia. But as with any marketing push, business is ultimately the point. For nominated films, Oscar recognition can bolster box office as well as revenue from DVD sales, streaming, downloads and cable TV fees. IBISWorld estimates that Best Picture winners between 2008 and 2012 earned $13.8 million more than the also-rans, with winners netting nearly half their total box office after being nominated.
Meanwhile, Oscar-winning actors can expect as much as a 20 percent bump in their asking price, according to talent agents and managers, though there's quite a gender gap. Best Actress winners earn about $500,000 more after a win versus the men, who can command as much as a $4 million increase in pay, says Ira Kalb, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about the economics of the Academy Awards.
Just as a film tells a story, an Oscar campaign must do the same, says Scott Feinberg, who covers the Oscars for The Hollywood Reporter and hosts its awards podcast. "Strategists refer to it as 'the narrative,'" he explains. "They're creating and controlling a narrative, very similar to a political campaign."
While the annual glad-handing has intensified in a digitized, multichannel world, it is nothing new. "No Best Picture nominee has gotten there without a campaign in 40 years," notes longtime awards prognosticator Tom O'Neil. "To be in the race, you have to spend the money, hire the consultants, mount the offensive."
This is a process that would make even a master marketer weary—it is not for the weak. It will have been a six-month journey from the unofficial kickoff of Oscars season—the Venice, Toronto and Telluride film festivals, in early fall—to ABC's telecast of the 88th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 28. Actors, directors, producers, studio executives, publicists, awards consultants and practically anyone else connected to this year's nominated films have been out on the hustings, striving to get their work noticed and to earn votes.
And this year, no one has commanded more attention than Leonardo DiCaprio.
Many believe this is the five-time nominee's year. (As the cliché goes, they've already engraved his name on the trophy.) DiCaprio is up for Best Actor for his physically excruciating role (including his tangling with a giant, CGI-concocted grizzly bear) in 20th Century Fox's gritty frontier tale The Revenant.
The usually private star has been conspicuous lately, guesting on a string of TV programs (The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Today show, Entertainment Tonight) where he happily chats about his "nauseating" experience eating raw bison liver and sleeping in a (fake) dead horse during the film's production. DiCaprio has turned up in a lot of other places, too. He nearly broke the Internet with his mischievous, side-eye glance at Lady Gaga at the Golden Globe Awards in January, where he took home a trophy for his Revenant performance. He even managed the ultimate photo op—an audience with the Pope.
"Leo is a notoriously press-shy and withdrawn star—but he's been working this system like a Bronx politico," O'Neil observes.
Another of this year's front-and-center contenders is Brie Larson, up for Best Actress for her unforgettable performance in A24 Films' chilling drama Room, in which her character is held captive with her young son and terrorized in a 10-by-10 garden shed before breaking free. The Northern California native has immersed herself in her first campaign for the little gold man. "She's been working this scene very effectively from day one," says Nicole Sperling, who's covering the Oscars race for Entertainment Weekly. "She's been meeting tons of voters at event after event, and she couldn't be more personable, sweet or down to earth. Academy members have been fawning all over her."
As for the other nominees, there was Cate Blanchett (nominated for Carol) at the Museum of Modern Art Film Benefit in New York as well as Ampas' Governors Awards in Hollywood, which also drew Oscar contender Bryan Cranston (Trumbo); Matt Damon (The Martian) at Sundance; Sylvester Stallone (Creed) at the Oscar nominees' luncheon and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where he was honored; and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) on CBS' Late Show With Stephen Colbert, teaching the host how to "speak Irish." Producers and directors have also been in the thick of it, pushing Best Picture contenders—among them, Brad Pitt, a producer of Paramount Pictures' housing-bubble flick The Big Short; Steven Spielberg, director and producer of Disney's historical thriller Bridge of Spies; and George Miller, who directed and produced Warner Bros.' Mad Max: Fury Road.
It should be noted that campaigning doesn't always work. The famously reclusive Johnny Depp in recent months mounted a push for his role in Warner Bros.' Black Mass, based on the crimes of James "Whitey" Bulger. But despite making himself available for multiple interviews and public appearances, he did not snag a nomination. Ditto for Will Smith, star of Columbia Pictures' sports-themed Concussion.
It may seem like everybody in Hollywood has bought into this costly spectacle—but the process definitely has its critics. Spielberg complained in a Hollywood Reporter interview that Oscar stumping emphasizes "the power of persuasion over the power of the story."
Making the current run for Oscar even more challenging has been the resurrection of last year's #OscarsSoWhite protest concerning the dearth of African-American acting nominees. The controversy—including a boycott of the ceremony by Smith's wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee and others—has received reams of media attention, and naturally, reporters have peppered nominees with questions about it, or at least have tried to. Publicists confirm that they've had to coach the stars on how to speak sensitively about the issue in the hopes of avoiding the type of fallout Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling caused after she decried the protest as reverse racism on French radio.
Insiders say #OscarsSoWhite seemed to have tempered awards campaigning somewhat during the second phase of Oscars season, after nominees are announced. But that normally is less a time for wining and dining anyway, per academy dictates.
Social media certainly fueled the diversity protest. Even so, and despite the inexorable rise of digital, the ramp-up to Oscar is still largely analog, and still very much a ground game. Just as any politician knows, there is no substitute for pressing the flesh. It is imperative that nominees circulate as much as possible among the approximately 6,200 academy voters, before the ballots are even mailed. "You have to get the picture noticed," says Hammond, noting the stack of nominated screeners is deep and voters' time is scarce. "An ad or an event won't get you a vote, but it can get your movie seen."
Oscars watchers say there are boxes that must be checked if a contender expects to end up with a statuette. First, clear the schedule, because campaigning is a job that's "endless," says Dave Karger, Fandango's resident Oscars specialist, who adds, "It's very important to play the game, especially in a tight race. Going the extra mile can mean the difference between winning and losing."
Someone who appears to have grasped the concept of going the extra mile is Larson, who used her breaks from filming Kong: Skull Island to take part in Oscar campaigning. In the space of a few months, she jetted to L.A. from Hawaii four times and from Australia and Vietnam two times each—always arriving with a smile.
Another famous tale of dedication to campaigning is Marion Cotillard, who relocated from France to L.A., improved her English and dived head-first into awards season around her role as Edith Piaf in the 2007 French film La Vie en Rose. The biopic ended up with two Oscars (besides Cotillard's Best Actress prize, it won for makeup). "Her performance was phenomenal, but no one knew who she was," notes Karger. "She made a real effort to meet and greet the voters, and that no doubt helped her win."
Yet another case study is Eddie Redmayne's full-scale offensive leading up to last year's Best Actor win for Universal/Focus Features' The Theory of Everything, in which he portrayed physicist Stephen Hawking. "He had the best ground game—he was pumping every hand, kissing every baby," says O'Neil. "He was the happy warrior." Redmayne's buzzy performance and Oscar win are also credited with helping push the movie, which had a modest $15 million budget, past $122 million worldwide. Redmayne is nominated again this year, for Universal/Focus Features' The Danish Girl.
The legwork required to win an Oscar has become so accepted that there's almost nothing—not even a current gig—that will keep a contender from doing it. This year, Ronan, despite appearing in The Crucible on Broadway, has been a tireless campaigner. Redmayne, while busy filming a Harry Potter spinoff, has still made the rounds. An exception is Mark Rylance, Best Supporting Actor nominee for Bridge of Spies, who is currently appearing in the Broadway play Nice Fish and, thus, has not been an active Oscar campaigner.
Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo and other stars of Best Picture contender Open Road Films' Spotlight have been on the road since last fall, aggressively promoting the film centered on newspaper reporting that uncovered the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal in Boston. Ruffalo and director/co-writer Tom McCarthy even talked investigative journalism with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, buffing the drama's high-sheen halo and contributing to what O'Neil calls the movie's "very shrewd assault" on the Oscar process. (The film, which has already won numerous awards, is up for six Oscars.) Meanwhile, Adam McKay, director and screenwriter of The Big Short, screened his picture for 450 members of Congress and others in Washington, D.C.
In a league of his own this Oscars season has been Best Supporting Actor hopeful Sylvester Stallone, a sentimental favorite for his Rocky reprise in MGM/Warner Bros.' Creed (see: boisterous standing ovation upon his Golden Globes win). Stallone, who hasn't been this visible since the original Rocky premiered five decades ago, has been on the circuit since last year, doing press (much of it self-deprecating) and taking part in a swank lunch at Wolfgang Puck's Cut restaurant that attendees say was one of the highlights of this Oscars season.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, director of The Revenant, has also been omnipresent, from Q&A sessions with Ampas members and awards blogs to the nominees' luncheon, where he confessed, in regard to campaigning, "I'm exhausted! I'm numb!"
His lead actor DiCaprio has emerged as a shining example of how to do Oscar campaigns right, Oscarologists say, by being humble, accessible and charming, thanking all the right people, and emphasizing "the work" and the value of serious filmmaking—all catnip to the industry. His meeting with Pope Francis as well as his appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month were not formally connected to his Oscar bid, but certainly didn't hurt his standing with voters prone to be impressed by his environmental activism.
"People have asked, can you buy an Academy Award?" says David Weitzner, who teaches filmmaking at USC and is a former marketing chief at Fox and Universal. "I don't believe you can. There are people and studios who are very good at bringing attention to films and performances, but they can't buy that award."
They can surely try, though.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.