Inside the annual traditions of award season
There are many strange tribal rituals at this time of year. One annual tradition is the article by the outraged media member who wags a finger at awards campaigns, shocked, shocked at the notion that people are trying to buy an award.I get it. Some find campaigning distasteful — scientists don’t take out ads in the New England Journal of Medicine, urging “for your consideration in all categories” for the Nobel Prize. However, showbiz ain’t medicine. Am I in favor of campaigning? Of course! Am I being impartial? Of course not! A portion of Variety’s income comes from these campaigns. But one can try to be objective. Marketing is part of Hollywood’s DNA. Fox didn’t launch “Avatar” quietly, saying, “Gee, I hope people realize the film is opening this week.” They promoted the hell out of it, and got results. Selling is part of every film, TV series, album, vidgame or online project. It’s the Hollywood way and it’s the American way. But don’t take my word for it. Here is the description from one of my favorite writers on the process of selecting Academy Awards: “Technically, they are voted, but actually they are not decided by the use of whatever artistic and critical wisdom Hollywood may happen to possess. They are ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed, and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten.” That essay, called “Oscar Night in Hollywood,” was written by Raymond Chandler in 1950 for the British film magazine Sight and Sound. Yes, 61 years ago; campaigning and all the lamenting about crassness are as old as Oscar itself. Campaigns have two goals: to goad voters into seeing a film or to remind them why they liked it. AMPAS members don’t have time to see every movie, and campaigns basically say, “Make sure you see this film before you vote.” Special screenings, trade ads and screeners have been around for ages. So has the meet-and-greet-the-contenders technique, but it has exponentially increased in the past few years. It will be interesting to see if campaigns change in the next few years, because two years ago, Mo’nique and Christoph Waltz underlined the fact that there are no rules. Mo’nique was working, and her absence on the kudos circuit became a point of pride: I’m not going to try to woo voters, let them vote on merit. And she won! Waltz was around, but he didn’t give any one-to-one interviews. And he won! In contrast, the “Hurt Locker” team that year, and the “King’s Speech” team last year, were fixtures on the awards circuit. And they won! Campaign strategists watch each other and imitate success, and the non-appearance of these winners defied conventional wisdom. Did the hand-shaking make a difference? I don’t believe Tom Hooper won because he’s intelligent and likable (though he is both). I believe people voted for him simply because they loved his work. A decade ago, campaigners got a similar mixed message: “The Pianist’s” Adrien Brody was everywhere, and he won. Director Roman Polanski was nowhere to be seen, and he won. So why bother campaigning? Strategists want to show they’re working hard on behalf of their clients. Clients see rivals working hard and think, “Uh-oh, I better do that too.” And, crucially, nobody wants to take chances. The PricewaterhouseCoopers people are resolutely mum about past Oscar results. But Ernst & Young partner Andy Sale last August confirmed to the L.A. Times that in several major Emmy categories in the past 10 years that “it’s been one ballot” that determined the winners. The lesson from your civics class was true: Each vote matters. So contenders, strategists, executives and agents use every technique possible in search of that elusive single vote that makes the difference. Am I writing this column to drum up ads? No, awards budgets were set a long time ago, and this isn’t going to change that. Do I feel the need to defend the Academy and other awards groups? No, they’re doing fine without me. But I bristle at the “you can buy an award” articles because I resent the notion of “those Hollywood heathens are at it again!” Every day I am surprised at the venality and stupidity of some showbiz people. And every day I am impressed with some folks’ intelligence, sensitivity and kindness. In other words, show folk are human, not sub-human. But what I really resent is people accepting conventional wisdom. If you say something often enough, people will accept it as fact, and the usual cliches — “it’s just a popularity contest” and “he simply bought his award” — have been repeated so often, many people believe it. And for lazy media members, it’s a sexier story than: “Awards voters vote with their conscience!” I think most voters are sincere. I don’t believe that, in the history of awards, anyone ever said, “I didn’t like that film, but I love the ads and the party was great, so I’m going to vote for it.” But don’t ask me, ask Raymond Chandler. In that 1950 essay, he comes to an interesting conclusion: “All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all the rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, bally-hoo, and bad theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievement in the film business?” Interestingly, in nearly every political election, pundits will lament the tone of the campaigning or the amounts spent, but few actually question whether it’s appropriate to campaign. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: It’s OK to campaign for the presidency of the U.S., but Oscar must be held to a higher standard? So, my dearly beloved entertainment-journalist colleagues: Be aware that you may have heard something plenty of times, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. And, by the way, I’m told that people do campaign for Nobel Prizes, often much more shamelessly than the film biz. That’s reassuring, I guess.