This was not part of the plan. Halfway through the most recent Toronto International Film Festival, an actor (a relative unknown) and a journalist (a friend of mine) were doing the usual hotel-room interview. Out of nowhere, the actor stood up and began railing. His voice rose, his face flushed. The journalist, baffled, apologized for whatever might have upset him, but there was no calming him down, and the interview ended.
The journalist explained the situation to the actor's team of publicists. Had this happened even a few years ago, they would have tried to minimize it – sorry, he was jet-lagged, hope you understand. But this was a prestige picture, and the goal was clear: The actor was supposed to come out of TIFF an Oscar contender. A bad interview could mess that up.
In the space of a few minutes, the publicists went from, "Are you going to include this in your story?" to "You better not include this in your story." The "or else" was implied – loss of access to future interviews. In the end they backed off, the journalist wrote the story fairly, and everyone moved on. But it's an example of how pitched things have become in the battle for an Academy Award. It's called a publicity campaign, but these days it's more like a war effort than an election.
"Oscar season" is now six months long: It begins at the Telluride, Venice and Toronto film festivals in September, continues through the deadline for nomination ballots (which this season is Jan. 8), and lasts until the ceremony itself. A studio or distributor will spend anywhere from $5-million to $20-million (U.S.) on a campaign, including advertising, marketing, entertainment and travel costs – which is a lot, but still a fraction of the $75-million they can spend to promote a summer blockbuster – all for a box-office bump said to be around $15-million. Others argue that the bump isn't the point, that the Oscars create a self-sustaining economy for more literate films that might otherwise be crushed by the current comic-book-movie culture.
On Nov. 8, the annual Governors Awards (honorary Oscars) were awarded in Los Angeles. The ceremony was split off from the main event six years ago, mainly to speed up the telecast. But it's become the first official stop for would-be campaigners. Entertainment Weekly spotted Jennifer Aniston working the room (for her drama Cake), as well as Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer), Robert Duvall (The Judge), Hilary Swank (The Homesman), Octavia Spencer (Black and White), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) and Jessica Chastain (more on her films in a minute). The British actor Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) flew in from London; Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) came down from the Toronto set of his Chet Baker biopic.
The competition creates a whole lot of crazy. At this past TIFF, the distributor of the comic drama Hector and the Search for Happiness gave journalists who wanted to interview its co-star, the British actress Rosamund Pike, a condition: They were forbidden to ask her about her other fall film, Gone Girl – not even a single question. They feared that the Oscar talk she's generating with the latter movie would overshadow the former.
Last week, Chastain, who has two previous Oscar nominations under her belt, walked the red carpet at the premiere of her upcoming indie, A Most Violent Year, in which she plays a mob princess in 1980s New York. But as Michael Cieply reported in The New York Times, that's about the only thing Chastain will be permitted to do to flog that film, because she's also in the space thriller Interstellar. She's considered an Oscar contender for both, but she signed an agreement to promote only Interstellar from early October through early December.
The agreement, Cieply says, not only prevents Chastain from making media appearances, it also bars her from attending the slew of semi-private Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screenings and get-togethers that are "de rigueur for those seeking Golden Globes and other prizes that pave the way to the Oscars"– even though A Most Violent Year, which cost $20-million and will likely play only in art houses, could use the extra publicity generated by an Oscar campaign much more than Interstellar, which cost $165-million and has a marketing juggernaut behind it.
Aggressive campaign tactics aren't new. The producer Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood's leading Oscar strategist – his films have earned more than 300 nominations – has been playing tough since his My Left Foot (1989) delivered a best-actor statue to Daniel Day-Lewis. He pioneered the meet-and-greet events where the talent woos academy members. He convinced European contenders such as Roberto Benigni (who eventually won an Oscar for Life Is Beautiful) to move to Los Angeles for campaign season. He set up screenings wherever academy members live – Aspen, Hawaii, even the Motion Picture retirement home. He instructed publicists to call voters at home, and kept one best-foreign-language-film contender, City of God, in theatres for 54 weeks to generate enough attention.
Weinstein even hired Stephanie Cutter, Barack Obama's former deputy campaign manager, to promote 2012's Silver Linings Playbook and 2013's Philomena. (Her tweets position them as "politically significant" for their treatment of, respectively, mental health and adoption issues.) So powerful is he that Jennifer Lawrence joked when she won a Golden Globe, "Harvey Weinstein, thank you for killing whoever you had to kill to get me here."
Allegedly, Weinstein also started the now-widespread practice of whisper campaigns against rival films, especially films based on true stories. The protagonists in past Oscar contenders A Beautiful Mind, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips, for example, have been tarred as anti-Semites, torturers and reckless egomaniacs in an effort to turn off voters.
Oscar strategists try to counter by creating an appealing narrative for their contenders. Films hoping to be labelled "noble" jockey to be screened at the White House; Lincoln, The Help and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are three that succeeded. Eddie Redmayne, the British actor who stars in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything – he's considered the guy to beat this year – took the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
Matthew McConaughey campaigned for and won the best-actor Oscar last year, for Dallas Buyers Club, by positioning himself as an example of how an actor's career can turn around – in his case, from romcom dud to serious hero. Mickey Rourke did the same thing a few years ago with The Wrestler, and Michael Keaton is hoping to do it this year with Birdman, in which a washed-up comic-book actor tries to make a comeback as a thespian (all comparisons to Batman are intentional).
Expect more craziness to come. Because with no clear best-picture front-runner, this year's Oscars are still anybody's game. And many will do almost anything to get there.