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Surviving and thriving during awards season

There’s no shortage of opinions in Hollywood this time of year. Any so-called awards expert can tell you who will win, who should win and who can’t win. But what if you’re seeking something deeper? What if you want to delve into the issues that drive awards season, to dissect the hows and whys behind the campaigning, marketing and strategizing? Then you need veterans of the awards experience — studio execs, producers and embedded journalists. Just such a panel was assembled for this roundtable. Their insights — collected via email to accommodate diverse schedules and locations — are wide-ranging, informed, thought-provoking and occasionally humorous. And best of all, their ideas may stay with you long after this year’s final envelope is unsealed.

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What’s the biggest impact from all the recent changes to awards season?

Mark Urman: Shortening the season by a month was done to lessen excessive campaigning, but that hasn’t happened. The same amount of time and effort, and even more money, is being expended, but at a much more frantic pace. People rely less and less on strategy and finesse, and more and more on sheer spending.

Tom O’Neil: The biggest change is personal stumping. Stars and directors now act like Bronx politicos, pumping hands and slapping backs on both coasts.

Tom Ortenberg: The proliferation of Q&As with talent is a good thing. It creates a more personal connection between filmmakers and voters.

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte: I’m encouraged by the growing importance of shows like the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards and the SAG Awards. For the independent producer, these are important rungs on the ladder to wider recognition for films that don’t have the marketing budget to buy the attention of their audience.

With so many campaigns using Toronto as a jumping-off point, is it essential to have a strong showing there? Or is there still plenty of opportunity to make up ground later in the game?

O’Neil: Ever since “American Beauty” broke loose at Toronto, great movies have used the fest to build their own momentum. If “Hotel Rwanda” goes the distance to Oscar’s best picture lineup, it will probably be because it got a head start by winning the people’s choice award at Toronto.

Sasha Stone: It can mean all the difference for an otherwise obscure film to be celebrated in Toronto. But if you’re going to open in Toronto, the film better be good. It ain’t easy to overcome negative or even lukewarm buzz.

Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein: Smaller films are starting to be outshone by studio, star-driven product at Toronto, but you can make a splash at the New York Film Festival in October or November’s AFI (Fest).

Urman: There’s still room for latecomers. Witness the sudden entry of “Million Dollar Baby” into this year’s contest. But the film had better be very good, and the machinery behind it had better be very effective.

Levy-Hinte: Toronto is a wonderful festival, and an ideal place to launch an awards push, but there are numerous paths to success in a campaign. I don’t see Toronto as an essential element.

Each contender seems to go through spikes and dips over the course of the season. How do you know when it’s time to react and when it’s time to relax?

Vitale/Dinerstein: It’s never time to relax!

Levy-Hinte: This is an all-out race to the finish line. You might change gears, but your car shouldn’t even have a brake pedal.

Urman: Most of the fun is in knowing how to weather the vicissitudes without getting hurt. The only time to relax is when the award is in your hands — and even then you have to worry about how to capitalize on it.

Ortenberg: There’s no time to relax in awards season. We’re always striving to make sure our films are seen by everyone who needs to see them.

Stone: A campaign has to leave no stone unturned, and be in tune with the ebb and flow of the voters’ fancy. It’s also important to remember that desperation has a palpable scent, which will keep the Academy away in droves.

How much does the public’s reception to a film factor into voters’ minds?

O’Neil: The movie must already look like a winner in order to be hailed one. That means at the box office, too.

Urman: Public reception — and perception — are key factors. We forget sometimes that the Academy consists of people. They may be industry professionals, but they often like what the public likes.

Ortenberg: I think most award voters, and certainly Academy voters, are very independent thinkers who make up their minds for themselves, not by what anyone else thinks.

Levy-Hinte: All awards bodies understand that in order to be relevant, they must make some effort to give the public what it wants. You especially see this with the Academy Award for best picture, which is more like a high school popularity contest than a discerning evaluation of a film’s merits.

Vitale/Dinerstein: If a movie strikes a chord with America, voters pay attention.

Where does the biggest pressure come from during awards season? Is it generated internally? Or is it from forces beyond your control?

Stone: The pressure to win at all costs is always there — I’ve had contenders write me personally to ask if there is anything they can do to get more exposure. An Oscar win can turn someone’s life around, so it’s no wonder the pressure to win is so great. Even though what’s being judged is subjective and creative, it’s still treated like a political election.

Levy-Hinte: Everybody is invested in the outcome of awards season, and they all make their interests known to anybody who’ll listen. As soon as a film is in the can, they begin to jockey for position.

Vitale/Dinerstein: The biggest pressure comes from figuring out how to differentiate your product. With the trades packed with ads, inboxes full of letters about the films, DVDs piling up for consideration, competing screenings every night and parties (and more parties!), it’s up to the distributor to break through the clutter.

Urman: We make ourselves crazy trying to identify that one last thing that may put our campaign over the top. And, of course, our filmmakers have needs that must be addressed, and that creates additional pressure. But the worst things are those you can’t control — a bad review, exclusion from some roundup, omission from some list.

When you’re in the middle of the season, working in a virtual vacuum with ads running, buzz building and PR machines in high gear, is it possible to be aware of life beyond Hollywood?

Vitale/Dinerstein: No!

Urman: We all lose perspective at this time of year. We start reading the most trivial columns and looking at the most ridiculous Web site posting for signs and meaning. Of course, in the real world no one much cares about all our blood and sweat. They just want to see a good movie, and they’d probably prefer we didn’t try to manipulate them as much as we do.

Levy-Hinte: If you live within the world defined by the Hollywood PR machine, a psychotic breakdown can’t be too far off. Filmmaking is a wonderful thing, but it’s one small aspect of the human experience — we’re also obliged to take responsibility for the world around us.

Stone: We tend to think the world revolves around Hollywood and the awards season. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I can’t wait for the directors guild to announce. None of it really matters, of course. When I want to feel like a normal person I turn to my 6-year-old daughter, who wants to know things like, “Why can’t we see air?”

What’s the best piece of advice you could give — or have ever received — about how to handle awards season?

O’Neil: Always remember there is no such thing as a best picture. Only once in modern history have all Hollywood awards actually agreed on the top film, when
they aligned on “Schindler’s List.” But that same year the People’s Choice Award went to “Jurassic Park.”

Vitale/Dinerstein: Breathe deep, it’ll be over sooner than you know.

Levy-Hinte: Don’t believe the hype! Awards can be good for ego and career, but taking them too seriously can be quite deleterious.

Stone: The best advice I ever heard is from William Goldman who said, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s true; there are no sure bets.

Urman: I never got any good advice, and I’m not sure I can give any. All I know is that if you support good work, your prospects are automatically better. No one should spend too much time or money trying to win awards for vanity’s sake.

When the day comes that you are finally anointed ruler of Hollywood, what’s the one thing you would change about awards season?

Vitale/Dinerstein: We’ll declare a ban on parties, special screenings and trade ads; also, on critics telling us what they want us to vote for. No more articles in the trades or general newspapers about the awards season. And no Oscar pools! We’ll only allow DVDs. Let the films speak for themselves.

Stone: I’ll bring back the kitsch of glitzy campaigning. Let’s lift all the silly rules and have the studios fight to the death for their horse. Bring back the drama, I say. And move the Oscars back to March.

Levy-Hinte: Awards season has evolved into an ecosystem of taste, power and desire complex enough to rival a tropical rain forest. I honestly don’t think any single change can make an impact.

Urman: I’ll move everything to New York!

O’Neil: I’ll say we start the next awards season immediately after the current Oscars finish. Oh, wait a minute. …

What’s the best thing about awards season? Is it the parties? The swag? The anticipation? When it’s finally all over?

Vitale/Dinerstein: The best things are Golden Globe and Oscar nights — those are truly great evenings.

Levy-Hinte: I find it tremendously gratifying to see dedicated, gifted artists rewarded, particularly if they’ve toiled in relative obscurity for years. I only wish it happened more often.

Stone: There’s nothing like it when one great person or film that really is the best of the year actually wins. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does. …

Urman: Being able to participate at all is a good feeling. But let’s be frank: the best part is winning. A great gift bag is small compensation when you lose.

O’Neil: The best part is getting proof at last that showbizzers are crazy. Every year Hollywood spends $100 million to win a fake gold statuette that costs $400 to manufacture.