When Oscar balloting officially concluded at 5 p.m. Tuesday, electrolyte-depleted marketing gurus and studio publicists all over Hollywood collapsed in nervous exhaustion. With the conclusion of yet another death race of glad-handing, talk-show gabbing, Academy screening Q&Aing, and red-carpet grinning, I asked experts the question: Does Oscar campaigning even work? One Oscar consultant replied, “Does it make a difference? Absolutely. Can it make no difference at all? Absolutely.” Another consultant: “It might not be that campaigning works so much as not campaigning is a great way to not win.”
So there you have it: Supplicating to the Academy won’t necessarily get you an Oscar ... but it’s your only hope. With that irresistible sales pitch, I asked for the tactics that are most likely to nab nominees an Oscar. (Unless they don’t.)
Oscar Tactic No. 1: Show your hunger.
It might seem obvious, but the best way to win an Oscar is to let people know you want to win an Oscar. “It’s like throwing a birthday party,” explains our first Oscar consultant. “You can’t tell people that you don’t want [any presents] and then be shocked that they don’t give them to you.”
One marketing expert relates an example of a campaign that failed as a result of just such an approach: Julie Christie’s non-campaign for Best Actress in 2006’s Away From Her. “She told us, ‘I’ve never been a campaigner,’” relates this insider. “She kind of disappeared; she went back to Europe — and she lost. Whereas Marion Cotillard [nominated for La Vie En Rose] moved into the Chateau Marmont and let everyone know she wanted it. I remember saying to her, ‘You might want to come back here.’”
This year, two actors who have traditionally eschewed campaigning — Lincoln’s Daniel Day Lewis and Silver Lining Playbook’s Robert De Niro — worked overtime to court Academy membership, for Best Actor and Supporting Actor respectively.
“Supporting Actor this year is interesting,” opines one studio chief. “Harvey practically got De Niro to wash cars on Santa Monica Boulevard.” Adds the first consultant, “De Niro hasn’t done much glad-handing and personal appearances in his career. But this guy, for a supporting role, is everywhere — including that Hollywood International Film Festival. On Goodfellas, he was nowhere to be seen. I remember studio publicists were driven to drink over his nonchalance.”
Notes the head of marketing at another studio without skin in the Best Actor race, “Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win no matter what, but he also campaigned more than he ever has before. He was out here a lot — I’ve never seen him doing it before — probably because it’s such a tough field of competitors, you know?”
The studio chief does, however, warn of the dangers of someone of their pedigree being seen as wanting it too badly. “If it doesn’t work, then that’s bad, because you’ve sold out shaking hands and kissing babies; when Academy members see noneffective glad-handing, people avert their eyes.” Rough town!
Oscar Tactic No. 2: Be a beautiful woman.
Just a year ago, the Los Angeles Times published its own examination of the Academy’s secrecy-enshrouded membership, and the results were quite unlike the broader movie-going public: Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent white and more than three-quarters (77 percent) male, the Times found, with a median age of 62. Members younger than 50 years old make up less than 15 percent of the membership. To put that in technical demographic terms, it means the electorate is filled with dirty old men. “Here’s the sad truth: The more ‘fuckable’ the actress, the more likely the chance to win,” says our first consultant, not a little forlornly, adding, “The academy is all men. Beautiful women get nominated, out of all proportion to the numbers — to the point that some of these winners have never equaled that [nominated] performance again. But look, they’ve done studies. Even babies are more drawn to attractive people. This year, you’ve got an 86-year-old woman and a 6-year-old girl up against Jennifer Lawrence. So who do you think is gonna win?”Again, as with all these tactics, it is hardly foolproof. But it is interesting to note how many attractive actresses took on unglamorous roles, then seriously glammed up for their press rounds, and won. This tactic grabs attention as the actresses seem even more beautiful for the stark contrast.
“When Hilary Swank plays boys — and she’s won two Oscars doing that — her whole campaign is her wearing pretty dresses all the time,” explains our first consultant. “You can go to every event in a gown, and more people want to dress you. Designers come out of the woodwork. Also, when Helen Mirren won for The Queen, she won by campaigning — remember all the talk about how she was ‘actually still a babe’ even though she was over 60?’” No shock that Anne Hathaway has been everywhere, with the hacked-off mop she wore as Fantine the tragic, toothless prostitute, turned into a charming pixie cut.
Oscar Tactic No. 3: Act humble — even if you’re not. (Especially if you’re not.)
Humility — even false humility, given the outsize egos of so many male Academy members — is essential. Says our first consultant, "I was working with an Oscar-nominated actress recently, and she told me she went to the Sorbonne ... I was like, 'Wow! That's a great nugget — we should use that in interviews and press materials,' and she was immediately like, 'Whatever you do, do not tell people I went to the Sorbonne!' And she was right: This is a town that doesn’t appreciate or reward smart women … It probably hurt Sharon Stone’s career immeasurably when she claimed she was in MENSA."
Similarly, one former marketing head thinks that Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain’s fortunes have ebbed in the Best Actress Oscar odds in favor of Jennifer Lawrence because of a perceived sense of entitlement in Chastain coming from her speech for winning a Golden Globe. The speech was “awful,” says the executive. “Those awards speeches are such opportunities to deliver why you should win an Oscar. Instead, she said, ‘I’ve worked for a really long time. I’ve auditioned and struggled and fought and been on the sidelines for years.’ You’ve worked so hard for this? You haven’t been on the map but for a few years! Jesus, Christopher Plummer waited almost 50 years to win an Oscar! And I think that contributed to her decline.”
This is particularly important when you flub a speech before an audience that has even more overlap with the Academy’s membership, like the BAFTAs. For this reason, Oscar consultants’ eyebrows raised in alarm when the Twittersphere erupted in derision at Anne Hathaway’s botched BAFTA acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress last week. Even as she professed breathless surprise, her words felt perfectly scripted and memorized, the combination of which (after being a front-runner for so long) made her feel presumptuous about winning. Calling her own film a “theatrical juggernaut” also did little to help her come off as a gracious, modest winner. (If it seems sexist that these “arrogant” and “too-smart” campaign violations are only connected to women, see the voting body cited in Tactic No. 2.)
Oscar Tactic No. 4: It’s my turn.
Ironically, a great way to win an Oscar is to lose one, preferably over and over again, but at least once. When Susan Sarandon won the Best Actress trophy in 1995 for Dead Man Walking, it helped that she’d been nominated — and lost — in the same category three of the prior four years. Judi Dench was nominated for Best Actress in 1997 for her world-class performance in Mrs. Brown and lost to As Good As It Gets’s Helen Hunt. The very next year, Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her miniscule but memorable role in Shakespeare in Love — all eight minutes of it; many believe this was a make-good.
This year, the nominee with the “Aww, give the guy his due” sales pitch is the aforementioned De Niro. “When you see Bobby De Niro,” says a third consultant, “it helps to frame the conversation with a look at his body of work: ‘He hasn’t had an Academy Award in … how many years?’ A lot of people can’t remember it was 1981, for Raging Bull. For someone like De Niro, who in between did comedies and is now back doing what he does best, it makes a difference for him. It becomes, ‘He’s been in so many great films — Awakenings, Cape Fear — [and lost for them], and now this? Maybe it’s time.’ ”
Of course, it’s hard to say whether the “it’s time” campaign tactic cuts any ice with Academy voters, because those actors whose achievements have gone unrewarded are frequently those who refuse to campaign in the first place. (A chance De Niro is apparently not willing to take.) “Albert Finney notoriously never campaigned, and lost [for Erin Brockovich in 2001],” notes our first consultant, adding that Peter O’Toole, nominated eight times, “never campaigned, and never won, either.” (He did get an honorary award in 2003.) “Henry Fonda actually won for not campaigning.” Like O’Toole, Fonda won his first Oscar as an honorary gesture (in 1981, at age 76) after decades of unrewarded work and only two nominations, for 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath. When he finally won an actual Best Actor Oscar the next year for On Golden Pond, Fonda was too frail to attend the ceremony, sending his daughter Jane instead.
Yes, for every campaign “rule” there are exceptions; there are people who play the game perfectly and still lose. And yet these rules remain because they are reinforced every time they do work. “When you win the Oscar, every idea you had feels good in hindsight,” admits one studio marketing chief. “Everything you did looks really bright, postmortem.”