Oscar Mired: The Peaks and Pitfalls of an Awards Campaign
The days get shorter, the air gets crisper, the foliage turns red, screeners and invitations start pouring in, and your inbox is jammed with "For Your Consideration" e-mails. Awards Season has arrived. This year, a staggering 124 documentary feature films were submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Oscar consideration. In early December, this number was winnowed down to a short list of 15.
As if making a documentary were not hard enough, upon reaching completion and release, filmmakers have to rely on a separate skill set to promote their work and rise above the fray. With a mere three months—at the time of writing—before the five nominees are announced, Documentary turned to previous winners and nominees, as well experts in the field on how to navigate the murky waters of awards campaigning.
What advice would you give to a filmmaker who is approaching this for the first time?
Morgan Neville (2014 Academy Award-winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom; co-director of Best of Enemies): When you make a film, you only ever think about your production schedule and your production budget. What you don't realize is that once the film is out there, the whole other part of your job is just beginning. And it's not just for the awards. That's getting the film promoted and released too—and that's all part of the indivisible puzzle.
Amy Grey (Publicist, Dish Communications): Once you've made a film, it's very important, whether you have distribution or not, to do a film festival circuit so that you can build a grassroots following for your film. We're real proponents that this is key to an awards campaign. And by that you build the word of mouth.
MN: With Twenty Feet from Stardom, I realized from our very first screening that the film was getting a lot of traction and that I had to really commit myself to the film because it was an opportunity. And I basically put a lot of work on hold for a number of months, and I went on the festival circuit. I think in the end I went to 26 film festivals.
AG: It's really important to network and be gracious. If you're at a film festival and you meet another filmmaker or someone who's been around the block a few times and had some award-winning films, or someone that you're a fan of, send them an email. Follow-up is really key, and so are manners.
MN: You're just out there spreading the gospel about your film. And if you want to, you could do nothing but that for a couple of years. When you finish a film, you want to give it its best shot of surviving in the world, so you do what you can for it. Certain films need to be sold and explained more than others. Probably one of the biggest mistakes young filmmakers make is not realizing how much of the job has to do with what happens once the film's done.
I think the mistake I made when I was younger was being too impatient with the process of what happens after a film's released, and wanting to move on to my next film because, after all, we're filmmakers, and that's what we want to do.
What strategic role does the publicist play in all this?
AG: You have to stand out from the pack, and the way to do that is to have a publicist who is out there talking to the Academy's Documentary Branch members. We live and breathe documentaries because that's all we specialize in.
When filmmakers go to big PR firms, often they say, "We got lost in it." It's not necessarily the size of PR firm that counts, but whether they have a dedicated documentary division.
We always tell people, before they hire a publicist, that it's great to check their references but also talk to the media. Ask people at the LA Times, New York Times, IndieWire, Deadline, The Wrap, Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Ask them what they think of working with that publicist. Even though a publicist can have a track record, it doesn't mean that journalists like working with her or him.
Are they good at follow-through? Do they have a lot of connections where it's going to be an asset to your film? Look at the other work they've done.
Fredell Pogodin (Publicist, Fredell Pogodin & Associates): I try to take films that I feel can have a shot. I don't want to take somebody's money otherwise. And I only like to take on one film in a particular category. I personally have always believed you don't represent multiple films in the same category. I made an exception once and I kind of regretted it. There are only so many publicists who can do the job properly and understand how the Academy stuff works. It's also a point of professional pride—the more you can get nominated, the better.
AG: We only represent films that we're really passionate about and filmmakers we really like. Even if we have multiple films in the short list, which has happened, we make sure that we don't take on more than we can handle. And that's why we have a lot of repeat business from our filmmakers, because they know that we give them the attention they deserve.
We are very proud of working with Rory Kennedy on Last Days in Vietnam, which was nominated last year. We worked very hard and we did a really strategic campaign. What was the key to that? It was going to the festivals, Rory being very amenable to things that we suggested she do, strategic timing in terms of advising on when the theatrical should be. So you want a publicist who not only strategizes, but has a track record of giving good advice to filmmakers.
To avoid the glaring omissions in nominations that have occurred in the past, the Academy voting procedure has evolved substantially in the past decade. Those changes, coupled with the increased production of documentaries, have dramatically affected how campaigning is conducted. What changes have you seen?
Brett Morgen (2000 Academy Award nomination for On the Ropes, which he directed with Nanette Burstein; Director, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck): On the Ropes was our first film; it was my thesis film at NYU. So to say that we were green is an understatement. We knew nothing about awards, or campaigning. But in 1999, when we released On the Ropes, there really was no campaigning. Even after we were nominated for awards, we never campaigned. We never sent out mailings, we never attended screenings, there were no luncheons or cocktail parties. The first predictions I had seen for the Oscars that year were the morning of, in the LA Times. So there weren't any "Oscar pundits" steering you toward any particular set of films. It was a totally different landscape, and one that I miss greatly.
On the Ropes won the IDA Award and the DGA Award, and we were nominated for a Spirit and an Academy Award. If I'm not mistaken, we were one of the first films to get traction in all three awards. But back then, winning the IDA meant very little in regards to the Academy. I'm talking as if this is ancient history, but it was only 15 years ago.
FP: Unfortunately, it isn't always the best film that wins, but it's a film that captures people's imagination or whatever. Michael Moore [former head of the Documentary Branch] wanted to democratize the process and have more people participate in the vote.
BM: I felt that the system was working best in the mid-2000s, when anyone who wanted to vote was sent 15 films to screen. That was very manageable. I personally feel overwhelmed receiving 120-plus films in a year. I know I'm only required to screen 15, but receiving 120 DVDs presents several challenges. I would like to screen all of them, but where do you start?
There will always be areas to improve upon, but for all of its flaws and all of the criticisms, I think for the most part, since 2000, the nominees have been reflective of who we are as a community.
FP: So 124 docs qualified this year; it's a mind-boggling amount. My major concern is that it's the high-profile ones that one's more apt to watch, so I feel bad for some of the smaller films. You're apt to watch films you've heard about. Maybe it's because they have made a splash on the film festival circuit, maybe it's because you know the filmmaker, maybe it's because you're interested in the subject.
AG: The short list is voted on by the entire Documentary Branch. It has about 250 members throughout the world. The concentration of doc branch members are New York, LA and San Francisco. So it's very important that your film has a presence in those markets.
I give the Docu Branch credit. All of the members I know endeavor to watch as many films as they possibly can. But I don't think it's realistic that they're all going to watch all the films.
We've asked Docu Branch members, "How do you decide, out of all those films that you receive, what you are going to watch?" And all of them say the same thing: Films that they have heard of, whether it's through festivals or media, and filmmakers whose work they are aware of.
So if it's someone who's a repeat filmmaker, they might have an advantage. If it's a first-time filmmaker, but their film has gotten a lot of buzz, then they might be on the lookout for that. But when there's so much competition, you really need a publicist who's out there cheerleading for you to say, "Reach into that box and watch my client's film."
FP: Screenings are important because—apart from the fact that most films play much better on a big screen—the more visibility you have, the more people you meet, the better. If people don't like you, they're not going like the film. But maybe if they like you, if they understand something because of a Q&A, if they understand something because of your opening remarks, if they show up at an event…you're creating a climate where people might be more receptive to your film.
Think about this: If you get 120 screeners, the more you hear about a film because it's being shown at the DGA, because it's at a screening here, there, because they're doing this, it's a reminder that maybe you should watch that film.
BM: When I talk about publicists, I need to distinguish between two arenas. Publicists, as a rule, are fantastic when it comes to putting the films out there. They are a filmmaker's greatest ally. They are essential to the filmmaking process and the distribution process.
In regards to awards season, despite what the PR folks will tell you, there is no secret strategy, and there is no secret sauce. Why do publicists think that they can influence our votes? I have friends, and they're not going to influence how I vote. I'm going to vote based on my response to the work.
Having sat on juries and been part of the voting process in other arenas, I find that Academy members take their voting very seriously. We are not an easy group to sway. Honestly, our branch is not that corruptible, and I don't think a lot of people are going to vote for any reason other than merit.
Resources are not just allocated to running for the Academy Awards, but they also have to be parsed shrewdly if the film is campaigning for other awards.
FP: There are innumerable awards. Whether it's the LA Film Critics Award, or the Broadcast Film Critics Award, the National Society of Film Critics...If you have your eye on the Oscar, it's all part of the push.
AG: We encourage all our filmmakers to apply to every eligible award: IDA, Independent Spirit, DGA, Gotham and so forth. It raises the visibility of the film.
Early on, people did not believe Last Days in Vietnam would go the distance. It did not win any awards until it won an editing award at IDA. And then it got nominated for an Oscar.
But there are other reasons, besides the professional accolades and pride of being an Academy nominee, for which filmmakers want to be in consideration.
FP: There's any number of reasons why you mount an Oscar campaign. Sometimes it's because you want to further a cause. If your film is visible, the ability to change policy is quite extraordinary. For Joshua Oppenheimer, with The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, part of his agenda would be for the current regime in Indonesia to apologize for what's been done. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian genocide, Senator Tom Udall has a resolution before Congress that the US acknowledge its own participation in the genocide.
With India's Daughter, we're advising on the Academy portion. It's not a film that's really commercial. Who wants to watch the case unfold about the student who was raped in the back of the bus? But Leslee Udwin, the director, feels very strongly about gender equality and found a number of backers, including people like Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, to help fund screenings.
AG: You have a lot of Documentary Branch members who are extremely smart and are engaged in the kind of more difficult-to-watch film. Look at Laura Poitras' film last year, CitizenFour; that wasn't light and fluffy and it won the Oscar. We had a lot of naysayers with Last Days in Vietnam and it still got a nomination because it's excellent film.
Of course there are people who say, "I'm never going to watch Act of Killing." Or, "I'm never going to watch something that's really difficult." I don't know how you convert people who have these notions except to get them to watch the film and say, "Look at the craft. Look at the storytelling." But that's part of the challenge of being a publicist: it's your job is to make the film seem as appealing as possible to get people to watch it.
FP: I've worked on films that I thought should have gotten nominated and didn't. Blackfish was one. And Life Itself was on everybody's Oscar prognosticator's list but didn't get nominated. There are so many worthy docs. Take a look at the 124, and of the ones you've seen, could you really limit it to five?
The costs of running an Academy campaign have risen exponentially in the past decade. It's rumored that mounting a successful campaign could cost up to $100,000.
BM: What's happening now is that publicists and pundits, who profit off awards season and have a financial investment in awards season, have created a cottage industry where none existed before.
A lot of filmmakers feel they have to hire publicists at great cost if they want be competitive. And as a community, we can't afford this. Most documentary filmmakers earn less than $50,000 a year. The current system honors those who have access to resources and really challenges those who don't.
One of the great speeches in Academy history was by Jessica Yu when she won for Breathing Lessons in 1996 and said, "You know you've entered new territory when you realize that your outfit costs more than your film." Now here's the irony: In today's world, her dress wouldn't even buy her a half a campaign.
MN: The filmmakers should not have to pay for a lot of these costs out of their pocket. Sometimes those costs are paid for by the distributor. Sometimes festivals pay to bring you in. I've been lucky to have distributors who are willing to spend money doing those things, and in fact, that's been something I've been very considerate of when I'm deciding which distributor to go with.
FP: Sometimes a film doesn't necessarily get picked up by a distributor. The Cove was a service deal, where you pay somebody to distribute it for you. In the case of The Cove, the distributor suggested that I be the publicist, so I met with Louie Psihoyos and I think he paid me out of his son's college fund.
AG: Not every distributor will pay for an awards campaign. There are some deep-pocket distributors and some smaller ones, where the filmmakers have to fundraise and reach into their own pockets to do that. What's important is to know where to spend your money and what makes sense. Sit down with your publicist and discuss it. You have to be judicious about what you choose to do.
FP: It's not costly up until the short-list campaign, unless you're going to do receptions, dinners, lunches, that sort of thing. The Academy is very strict about the rules of campaigning. Anything that goes to an Academy member cannot have a quote, prize or artwork. But for the doc community, there's a crossover between the IDA membership and Academy membership. So you can do an IDA email blast, which costs money, and an IDA screening, which is very expensive.
The LA Times has a screening series, and so does Deadline Hollywood and Variety. Everybody is in the business of not only trying to help people get nominated, but to make money too. The interesting thing, which people forget, is the Academy actually mails, at no charge, screeners to the doc branch, so it's not so easy to get people out, because they already have the screeners.
AG: Up until the short list is announced, you are allowed to have receptions with screenings. A publicist has to be willing to work with their clients to say, "Okay, this is your budget. What's the best way to spend it?"
You have to be willing to do the heavy lifting and be creative and not say to the client, "Well we don't do that." You want someone who's going to be willing to do what it takes to get to the short list.
BM: I would love to see us rise above what's become acceptable Academy campaign season etiquette, because I think that we, as a branch, should be leading in that sense. It's important that we do away with any possible visage of favoritism.
I want to be part of a community in which a film like On the Ropes, which was produced by two young filmmakers completely outside the system—film school students who had no access to the Academy—has an opportunity and is put on equal footing.
Spending a lot of time on the road at festivals and attending screenings inevitably has an opportunity cost, with less time being devoted to other projects in the works.
AG: It's very immersive. You have to really be dedicated and be very focused on wanting to have your film be a success.
MN: I suppose I should not be embarrassed of saying this, but I made less money the year Twenty Feet from Stardom came out than I did in decades. But to me, that was my own investment in the film and in my career, and I was okay with that. But it is a sacrifice. It's the time, travel and money that it takes to really position your film. And I want to be clear: This is not just about awards. It's about getting the film out there in the world. Awards stuff is just a fraction of that.
BM: Documentarians cannot afford to take a year off to campaign, to pay for the hotel rooms, to pay for the publicists. AMPAS has its rules, but I would love for us to of work together to create clarity, to create a world in which money cannot influence the outcome.
MN: You want to make sure that you've done all you can do for your film, and a lot of that is not about money. It's just about showing up at the time and doing a wealth of interviews. This time of year there are roundtables of contenders and festivals doing panels in Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Doc NYC and now, Savannah. And you just feel like you need to show up for those. I don't truly know how much of a difference that much stuff makes, but the thing is, you don't ultimately ever know what helps. You only feel like you don't want to leave it on the field.
BM: Montage of Heck was theatrically released in 40 territories around the world. It is probably one of the three or four widest distributed docs of the year. And yet I have been told that if I don't go to various luncheons and shake hands, I will be damaging my chances. I don't think a publicist is necessarily going to sway an individual voter, but I'm perhaps idealistic and naïve.
But if there is one positive role publicists play during awards season, it is that they become your personal advocate or guide, if you will, and so you feel that you're going through it with someone; you're not fully alone.
AG: You want to create a list of people early on who have supported your film, not necessarily monetarily, but just are on your team. Whether it's an academy member, a celebrity, a politician, a writer —if you can get people who really champion your film early on, you elicit their support when you need it. You can call in all those resources once you get that nomination.
MN: Particularly when it gets down to the last couple weeks, there's so many events going on, and what's interesting as a documentary filmmaker is you get sucked into the whole Hollywood machine.
I think it was a day or two before voting closed. My distributor said that there was a screening for some Italian-American film society at the Chinese Theater at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night. The last thing I wanted to do was to leave my wife and kids and go to this screening, but I figured, I've worked this hard, I'll be a good trooper and go out and represent the film. And I showed up, and it seemed a little ramshackle and loose, and I didn't know what was going on, and they finally led me into the theater and sat me in the front row, and I was wondering, "Why am I here?" And then, Steve Coogan came in and sat next to me, and then Alexandre Desplat sat next to me, and then David O. Russell sat on the other side, and then Bono sat next to him, and then Al Pacino sat next to him, and I remember looking around and thinking, All of these guys want to win an Oscar. It's not just me; they're all playing this game, and nobody's above it in that way.
The other part of these events is that you end up spending a lot of time with your fellow documentary nominees. Most people in the documentary world tend to be empathetic, smart, reasonable people. And I think we all realized that our films were so absurdly different from one another's that the only thing that connected them was that they were somehow called nonfiction. And so, in a way, it didn't feel like we were competing for who made the best film. We were actually very supportive of each other, and that was great.
What are the misconceptions that exist, and the mistakes and pitfalls to avoid?
AG: Young filmmakers who haven't watched a lot of documentaries might have a misconception of how impactful their film is. Or they might say, "My film's going to change the world." Very few films do that. The misconception is maybe the self-delusion, and you have less of that when you're familiar with documentaries and the challenges that very few of them make money in box office.
Also, not understanding the competition of the field—that you really have to fight and scratch to get recognition.
Again, going back to the film festivals as being a strategic part of the academy campaign, the programmers, the other filmmakers and the press that you meet at the festivals are going to help propel that awards campaign.
We're working with Meet the Patels this year. The film premiered at the LA Film Festival a year ago and has played many festivals. Michael Moore gave the filmmakers a beautiful reception in New York that was attended by many documentary luminaries. And they only met Michael because they did the awards circuit.
Also, don't be in a rush to try to qualify it for an Academy Award. There was a filmmaker who called me this year. The film hadn't played anywhere. They wanted to meet the deadline. They were going to qualify it. Well, why would anybody hear of it? You didn't give them a chance to discover it.
There's a great film that qualified last year, but had its theatrical this year, and they never should have qualified it last year. They should have waited. Sometimes there's too much competition or you don't have enough time to promote it.
A filmmaker needs to make a decision early on as to what the vision is for this film. Maybe they play a big festival and they get a lot of great press or they win an award. You have to make a decision at that point and put your team in place, whether it's a publicist, a sales rep, and so forth. You can't be calling up publicists in October and saying, "Can you help me?" Because anyone who's good is going to be committed.
I say the awards season starts with Sundance, and people always laugh. But it does!
FP: You spend five to seven years of your life making a film, believing in something, and it means a lot to you. Why wouldn't you want to wage an Oscar campaign?
Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor. Her work has aired on Bravo, A&E, AMC and The History Channel. Her articles have been published in Documentary, Dox and VivilCinema. She can be reached through www.darianna.com