A Breakdown of the ‘Outrageous’ Costs of 2015’s Oscar Campaigns

Oscars Campaign final Push
Elias Stein for Variety

Leonardo DiCaprio may have devoured real bison liver while shooting “The Revenant,” but Oscar voters have a far better meal plan: breakfast at Monkey Bar, lunch at Le Bernardin, dinner at the Harvard Club. For the 6,000-plus members of the Academy, awards season is now synonymous with handshakes and selfies against a stream of lavish buffets.

Welcome to the new reality of the Academy Awards. In the past decade, the heightened frenzy of campaigning has forced even reclusive actors to wine and dine voters. But as a result of 2015’s sheer competitiveness — with no clear front-runner in most of the top categories — the major studios (like Paramount, Fox and Universal) as well as upstart boutique labels (like Bleecker Street, Broad Green and A24) invested heavily on the campaign trail. They were joined by Netflix, which aggressively splurged on events for its inaugural narrative feature, “Beasts of No Nation,” only to see the gritty drama get shut out at last week’s nominations announcement.

“It’s outrageous,” fumed one indie studio chief, regarding the stacks of money being tossed around. “It reminds me of Republican fundraisers, but the Academy has decided not to put any restraints on this kind of spending.”

That’s not entirely true. Now that voting enters its second phase, Oscar rules stipulate that no events can serve food or drinks — to push back against the notion that a statue can be bought. But studios have found creative solutions to this policy, too. For example, they frequently arrange for a nominee to accept an award at a film festival (like Santa Barbara), where there will be Oscar voters; offer career retrospectives at museums or theaters; or stage a concert with film music.

The splintered race for best picture — “favorite” status is shared among as many as four films: “The Revenant” (12 total nominations), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (10), “The Martian” (7) and “Spotlight” (6) — is likely to encourage more advertising and promotion targeted to voters. Many of the other big races, from director to supporting actress, also seem like a game of “anything goes.” There’s already speculation that the directing snub of Ridley Scott may create an “Argo” effect, where voters could flock to “The Martian” to make up for the omission.

For films in the thick of the best picture hunt, smaller studios can expect to shell out $3 million for lobbying voters, while major studios figure to spend up to $10 million, sources tell Variety. And even though the meals and parties are ostensibly over, the cost of mailing watermarked screeners of the films to Oscar, guild and (earlier) Globes voters can set studios back up to $300,000.

In the past, studios relied heavily on frequent ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. But both publications have morphed from dailies to weeklies, and the money that companies spend on digital advertising represents a fraction of what they shelled out for print in trades and in the Los Angeles Times, which continues to see its readership shrink.

Studios are reallocating their resources. Believing a personal touch is essential, they want their stars to take as many selfies as possible with voters, which is why the number of Q&As during this period has surged. At this year’s BAFTA Tea in Los Angeles, Brie Larson shared her biggest fear of awards season. “I’m scared I’m going to get pink eye,” she said, alluding to all the hands she’ll touch before her red carpet debut at the Oscars. And it’s not cheap to ship talent around to various screenings and talk shows — travel can be the second highest expense for studios during awards season after TV ads, which are purportedly targeted at the general public, but are really aimed at Oscar voters in Los Angeles and New York.

Top Oscar consultants, a group that includes Cynthia Swartz, Karen Fried, Lisa Taback and Tony Angellotti, can expect to pull in tens of thousands of dollars for their awards-whispering efforts. Not only do they get hefty fees, they receive bonuses if films make Oscar short-lists, score nominations, and go on to win the gold.

In return, they produce highly detailed spreadsheets on voters’ opinions of their films. “It’s a cottage industry that they’ve created,” said a studio executive. “But you need them. They know who is voting and how to reach them.”