From the pages of

Stumping For Oscar
by Martin Lewis
(First published March 19, 2001)

This Tuesday at 5pm the polls close for what will be the most eagerly awaited election results since... well since the nine members of the Supreme Court went into a huddle last December and got to vote for a second time on the presidential election. And it is fairly certain that in the next week there will be a fair number of jokes made linking the recent election debacle with the Oscar balloting.

After all - in what now seems like a brilliant presaging of the November elections, in the last two years the Motion Picture Academy had had its ballots go missing - and the golden prize itself - the Oval Office of showbiz - the Oscar statues were heisted. The parallels are sufficient to keep Oscar host Steve Martin vested in gags throughout the show (though as an astute comic I suspect that he will be sparing in milking this particular cow.) But it will certainly give the vapid Stepford TV anchors on the Oscar red carpet something fresh to mangle.

But behind the jokes will be more truth than the funny lines suggest. We have all become familiar with the complaints about how Washington politicians have borrowed heavily from the entertainment world in recent years. The slick advertising, media-savvy makeovers, the cosying up to talk-show titans. But in truth, Hollywood has borrowed just as much - if not more - from the political process. And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the campaigning for the Academy Awards.

The reasons for this are quite simple. The twin rewards of winning an Oscar are immediate. Money and prestige. No matter how much money a film has made in its pre-Oscar life - a major prize inflates the return considerably. If a film is still in its theatrical run - such as "Chocolat" - the take grows exponentially if the film wins a major prize. If the film is gearing up for video release - it will sell many more units once it has the "Academy Award winner" tag adhered to its cellophane covering.

For the talent and technicians, the rewards can be both immediate and long-lasting. Actors, writers and directors can all double their rate card price the day after an Oscar win. Those who are skilled in behind-the-camera crafts certainly rise to the top of the pay ladder. And for all winners - there is the indelible "Academy Award Winner" appellation - a prefix or suffix that will adorn their resume forever. Unlike the Grammys which had to withdraw a statue from Milli Vanilli when it turned out that they couldn't sing - no one has ever had an Oscar withdrawn when it turned out subsequently that a winner couldn't really act.

With such valuable prizes at stake, it is no surprise that the machinations to win an Oscar have become so sophisticated and tactical in nature. It's astonishing that it took so long for the process to become so infused with the ways of Washington.

What was once a comparatively simple process marked by naive hustling and obvious grandstanding has become every bit as Machiavellian as a stealth campaign to put a neophyte or ne'er-do-well in the White House.

There are two main areas in which the Washington mentality has invaded Hollywood. The campaign calendar - and the campaign techniques.

The Primaries

There has always been an unofficial season that leads up to the Academy Awards. The declaration of the runners, and then a sprinkling of lesser awards that lead to the main prize. But until the last few years, these other awards and events were seen as random occasions that jostled for our attention without any serious merit.

But a convergence of interests have now placed shape and intent on those lesser trophies and elevated them into an inexorable guide of the Road to The Oscar House.

The first and foremost is the famed Golden Globes. Though this venerable event has been around for some 50 years - it was not until about ten years ago that it started to assume such significance. The show traditionally takes place on the third weekend in January - and by being the first major event in the calendar it has assumed the film industry role of the New Hampshire primary. It's the first major bun fight where the popularity of a film or actor can be tested.

Astute TV producer Dick Clark grasped the significance of this event a few years ago - and took it from a struggling haphazard evening dwelling on the lower rungs of your cable box into a primetime network TV special. And everyone plays along. Actors, writers and directors are shepherded to the ball by eager publicists who spin the awards to suit the results. A win is naturally a clear indication of the industry's mood. A loss is of no significance - because "it's only the Globes."

But is it really New Hampshire? Is this a fair indication of how 5,000 Academy members will vote, Not at all. This is less a primary than a straw poll or a caucus. And nothing as substantial as the views of a few good Iowans. For beneath the gilded veneer of its impressive name - the Golden Globes are really just the opinions of approximately 75 minor foreign journalists who are gloriously self-appointed. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a loose amalgam of print and TV stringers - usually from very small countries - who have been sent to Los Angeles to cover the glitz of showbiz. English is sometimes the second - but usually the third or fourth language for these venerable reporters. And yet... because their predecessors were astute enough to name their trophy wisely (the Bronze Bauble, or the Silver Spangle would not have seemed so prestigious) their choices can have an enormous impact in giving an outsider the momentum to spring into serious Oscar consideration. With so few voting members choosing between five nominees in each category - it is mathematically possible for the personal taste of as few as 15 journalists - to select the winner of a Golden Globe. That these scribes write for journals almost as esoteric as the Albanian Lawn-Mowers Gazette - makes the process even more risible.

In political terms it would be as though the New Hampshire primary was voted on purely by those foreign correspondents whose questions at Presidential press conferences are so respected that CNN and MSNBC always cut to commercial when they pipe up. They're barely covered by C-Span.

But The Globes are in the catbird seat in the Oscar calendar. Following the January Globes come a plethora of smaller primaries - where Oscar hopefuls try to pick up delegates to take to the main event. These are mainly the awards handed out by a slew of guilds, unions and societies representing the various technicians. Inevitable these craft awards are given short shrift during the Academy Awards. While you use the Best Art Direction of Best Cinematography awards as a refrigerator or restroom moment - they are naturally very important to those labor out of the spotlight to make the films we see.

So in recent years many of the guilds representing these crafts have instituted their own award ceremonies - where the indignity of a 3 minute slot at the Oscars can be redressed by a 3 hour ceremony dedicated to the chosen art. This of course is a noble undertaking - and gives the hard-working technicians their own night in the sun (if one may play with the solar schedule.)

But of course these honorable awards also become part of the Oscar process - and it's another two way street. To make these award events more glamorous - actors and directors suddenly turn up at the Cinematographers ball as "Special Honorees" and "Presenters" - and you've guessed it - many of these just happen to be Oscar hopefuls.

The result is a win-win situation. What would otherwise have been a modest event for members of the craft - is thrust into a media spotlight by the attendance of stars. The stars get the coverage in the all-important trade press. And the stars also get brownie points for showing up from the technicians - many of whom of course are Academy members. In political terms - this is the equivalent of the Washington pol who treks around to every rubber chicken fundraiser in Idaho and Alabama - hoping to pick up delegates along the way.

In early March come the big major primaries. The equivalent of New York, California and Texas. For this is when the big hitting guilds in the major categories kick in with their awards.

Two of these are not Johnnie-come-latelies. The Directors Guild and the Writers Guild have held separate award ceremonies for over 50 years apiece. But newcomers muscling in on the scene have been the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild - at 12 years and 7 years respectively.

These guilds coordinate the dates of their award shows carefully to prevent clashes and to assist the Motion Picture Academy and the studios in the build-up to the Big Event.

There was one prospectively big newcomer to the primary stakes this year. An attempt if you will to create a film industry equivalent to Super Tuesday.

The drawback in Oscar campaigning of all "primaries" that follow the Golden Globes is that they are all for specialized crafts. There is no other major ceremony that mirrors the across-the-board categories of the Academy Awards. Step forward the BRITISH Academy Awards!

For may years this event has languished on the entertainment calendar in the unenviable position of being held in April - a month after the Oscars and at a time when award show burn-out is at its height.

This didn't matter much in the past because - owing to the way American films used to be released internationally - (i.e. 9 months to a year in arrears of the US release) the films being honored in the UK were invariably the previous year's films anyway. So if an Oscar ceremony was dominated by battles between "Forrest Gump" and "Pulp Fiction" - the fact that one month later the British were giving out awards to the previous year's Oscar winner "Schindler's List" was hardly a newsworthy event outside of the UK.

But the international release patterns of movies have drastically changed in recent years. Films are released in most major territories within the same calendar year. The British Academy woke up to this fact and astutely moved their prestigious event from the doldrums of April into the prime campaign time of late February. A time when Academy Award ballots have arrived on the doormat of voters - and are being mulled before voting.

The fact that this event is taken seriously by the industry is underscored by the fact that the film world's most notorious Oscar dodger - Woody Allen (who famously makes a point of never attending the Oscars however many times he is nominated) nonetheless made a big point of making an appearance to accept a British Academy Award. This was in 1993 when he won the Best Original Screenplay award for "Husbands And Wives." Admittedly his acceptance speech was by satellite from New York - but that is still considerably more gracious towards the British Academy than anything he's ever done for the American Academy.

Alas the impact of what might have become Super Sunday did not materialize this year. Though the event was well attended in the UK with several Oscar nominees such as Tom Hanks making the trek to London - Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV operation which secured the worldwide TV rights - inexplicably failed to sell the show to an American network.

This will undoubtedly be rectified by next year - and the British Academy's bid to become a significant part of the Oscar primary season will resonate where it counts - on American TV screens - and reaching those all-important Academy voters.

The Campaigning

For as much as the months of January through mid-March have become the film industry's primary season - it is in the realm of pure campaigning that Hollywood has also emulated the spin-meisters of Washington.

The Hollywood marketing machines are not exactly primeval. The movie industry has always been skilled at spinning fable and fantasy. But the primary objects of those campaigns have been the public. After all money is honey in Hollywood - and putting people in the theaters has always been the primary aim.

So marketing to the masses comes easily to film studios. But pitching films, actors and technical crew to 5,000 persnickety Academy voters is a much trickier skill. This is a sophisticated seasoned electorate that prides itself - just as New Hampshire voters do - on being canny enough to see through the phonies.

So how do the studios reach their prey? Well even in the old, less-sophisticated days - there was always a massive amount of advertising undertaken. The entertainment industry supports two daily publications - Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter - and the pages of those publications during the awards season literally bulge with adverts. Because of a fear of seeming too eager - the adverts don't say crass things like "Vote For This Film." Perish the opportunist thought. Instead they have the perennially coy line "For Your Consideration...."

If such ads appeared just once - the line might appear discrete and tasteful. But when the line is repeated in literally hundreds of ads it is a subtle as a Sunset Boulevard hooker in garish makeup and Vote-For-Me Pumps snaking her hips and pouting "For Your Consideration..." as a come-hither to passing British actors.

Of course like political ads on TV the trouble is that everyone takes these full page color adverts - so they tend to cancel each other out. You can't not take ads because then you would be invisible. Like Alice In Wonderland - you have to take a huge number of ads just to stay where you are!

Where the real difference comes is in the subtle whispering campaigns. The delicate spinning and shading filtered out through the editorial pages. Take for example the skillful task being undertaken with Russell Crowe. Though performances in sandal-and-sword movies don't usually warrant Oscar consideration - there had been some early speculation that Crowe might be in the running. The cynical might scoff that Crowe's tunic in "Gladiator" was as much a consideration with female voters as Daniel Day-Lewis' loincloth had been in "Last Of The Mohicans" - but Crowe has earned his share of fans in recent years especially after "The Insider."

But Crowe has been his own worst enemy. He has a swagger that has had some journalists describing him as obnoxious and self-important. Not the self-effacing behavior of a Tom Hanks or Ed Harris. This was compounded by the tabloid-fed perception that he had wooed Meg Ryan from her storybook Hollywood marriage to Dennis Quaid - then dumped her when he'd had his fun and/or the film had wrapped.

Well it's hard to secure votes for a cad. The headline writers were already preparing their headlines of "Cadiator!" when suddenly the spin-meisters were in full session. A few weeks ago accounts surfaced that Russell was still an item with Meg Ryan and that the two would move in together (at least until after the Academy Awards.) No sooner had the image of Russ the noble, loyal lover been spooned out than another story surfaced. Russell The Impaler was now Russell The Imperiled! An unknown adversary was threatening to kidnap Russell and do such terrible things to him that the FBI was called in to protect our hero! (Did anybody ask to see Dennis Quaid's phone records? Just a hunch...)

Now the spinners were in their element. Russell Crowe went from arrogant Aussie to endangered species (a prospective thespian version of the Lindbergh Baby) in the space of two weeks. And since no one seems to have threatened Spanish heart-throb Javier Bardem or placed a voodoo hex on Marquis de Sade channeler Geoffrey Rush - Russell Crowe has owned the news cycle.

Whether this will influence Academy voters to vote for him is unsure. But it has certainly placed Crowe in the forefront of voters' minds at the crucial point when they vote. And that is a major part of the endeavor.

And the Russell Crowe spin machine is just the tip of an immense industry iceberg. It is no coincidence that A&E recently aired a "Biography" about the real Erin Brockovich or that a movie theatre in L.A. decided to hold a retrospective of Albert Finney movies or that Kate Hudson seems to have been on more magazine covers than any young actress nominee since... Goldie Hawn.

The Hollywood equivalents of James Carville and Mary Matalin in the shape of veteran press agents such as Pat Kingsley and Jerry Pam have been toiling beneath the radar on behalf of their clients. And unlike their political counterparts - these skilled spinners rarely speak out publicly. They are the unseen strategists and operators who need the approval only of their clients.

The proof of their work comes on Oscar night when there will be no court of appeal or submission to the Supreme Court. The team of Price Waterhouse will rule with more accuracy than any bug-eyed Palm Beach official, and with more of the electorate's respect than that accorded the hell-bent determinator of Florida - Katherine Harris.

The real battle for each winner will be to keep the inaugural address known as The Acceptance Speech to the term limits prescribed by Oscar producer Gil Cates. Fortunately for us - not even Academy Award winners are as long-winded as politicians.

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