Songwriters are almost be definition song sellers, but when it comes to taking the path to a best song nomination at the Oscars, there are still a number of steps that may come as unexpected to a tunesmith finding her way into Academy-land. “In some ways it is like a political campaign,” says Ray Costa, a film-music awards consultant. “Instead of getting your views out there, you need to get your art out there.” Ten steps on the path to Oscar night:
A song is born. Diane Warren can’t write every movie theme, appearances to the contrary, so directors, producers or music supervisors may favor old friends who have experience in “assignment” writing or take a chance on a pop star who doesn’t.
Strategize when to time a single release.Most songs come out concurrently with the movie, like “Shallow,” which was released just a week before “A Star Is Born.” Less frequently, the song is released early in hopes it’ll become a hit and herald the film. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” was written for “Trolls” but came out six months before the animated hit. In that case, “you have to remind voters it was written for the movie,” Costa says, “so they don’t think, ‘Oh, they licensed that No. 1 Justin Timberlake hit.’”
To submit or not to submit? It may seem like a no-brainer to just submit every eligible tune, but songwriters lucky enough to have multiple possibilities may not want to compete with themselves, as they see the Nov. 14 deadline approaching. It’s up to the lead songwriter whether to submit a song, and whether to submit one or two from a film, if there are multiple possibilities. (Writers who have less of a percentage of a song don’t have a say in the decision on whether to submit — and anyone with less than 10% percent credit isn’t even eligible for the nomination.) Last year only one was submitted from “A Star Is Born,” to guard against vote-splitting, but the “Mary Poppins” songwriters submitted two, both of which got nominations. The Academy has forbidden more than two submissions per film ever since “Enchanted” hogged the category with three best song nominations, in what’s come to be known as “the Alan Menken rule.”
Send three-minute clips to music branch members. “The submission can only be three minutes long, and you’re only allowed one edit,” Costa says. If a song appears in a film more than once, it can be advantageous to take advantage of that edit and use, say, a bit from within the film and a bit from an end-credits reprise. When Costa came onto on a campaign for Lady Gaga’s rendition of Diane Warren’s theme for “It Could Happen to You,” he had the studio pull back a clip that only used the fully produced end-titles version, because it made more of an impact being played earlier under a description of a rape, even though it was much softer there. “You have three minutes to have somebody believe that song helped propel the story — so if it’s just over the end credits, it better be the most incredible song you’ve ever heard, because without beautiful visuals, that’s more difficult. Randy Newman won for an end credits song for ‘Toy Story,’ but at least (in the clip) there was a little box in the corner still showing the characters.” There are roughly 70 song submissions in a year, which comes out to a manageable three and a half minutes of clip viewing to get through them all.
Do not send CDs, downloads or FYC emails to Academy members.It’s against the rules and a nominee was disqualified over it five years ago. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a mass mailing to, say, members of the Society of Composers and Lyricists, who have their own awards now, and many of whom happen to be Oscar voters. Also, there’s no bylaw saying you can’t belt out a tune at a party or showcase, as long as it’s not overtly targeting Academy members.
Nervously chew nails as short-list voting takes place Dec. 5-15. This is only the second year for a short list in Oscar music categories winnowing the initial field down to 15, from roughly 70 song submissions (or 200 scores). “I personally was not a fan of the short list” in its first year, Costa admits, saying that many music branch members quietly balked, too. “But the fact is, the people that were on that short list were all well deserving, and it’s easier to manage 15 songs if you’re voting later on than 70.”
Get yourself nominated for other influential awards. And we’re not just talking the Globes. Grammy nominations can factor in, too, even though they work on a different eligibility calendar than the Oscars. And then there are now two sets of awards specific to film music. In November, the Hollywood Music and Media Awards often prefigure which nominees will show up at the Globes and Oscars, both. This year, for the first time, too, the Society of Composers and Lyricists is hosting its own film music awards — and the inaugural nominees will be announced Dec. 3, providing a PR bump to the recipients just two days before voting begins for the Oscars’ music shortlists.
Paneling is key. Songwriters are making a bigger play to be included in the post-screening industry panel circuit alongside actors, directors and screenwriters. Barring that, there are increasing numbers of special events devoted only to musicians in film (like, incidentally, Variety’s Music for Screens Summit). “I want to have my clients on panels with the writer and the director as much as possible, because it really explains the process for people who don’t understand the (music) process,” especially once voting has gone beyond the music branch to the general membership.
Book yourself a newsworthy Vegas residency for December-January. Okay, this step is not available to every campaigning songwriter, but it sure didn’t hurt Gaga last year.
Pick out a gown that makes you look like a serious musician and seriously hot. Even if you don’t win, you know what they say: It’s an honor just to walk the red carpet.