How Lion, Arrival, and Other Oscar Movies Are Revamping Their Awards-Season Narratives

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Dev Patel in Lion. Photo: Mark Rodgers/Long Way Home Productions

So you’ve been nominated for a lot of Academy Awards. Now what? That’s the question a lot of savvy Oscar strategists have been planning for all season, which is why, as we rush headlong into the final stretch of awards season, so many of those movies are rebranding themselves and pushing a whole new narrative. On this week’s episode of The Awards Show Show, hosts Kyle Buchanan and John Horn look at films like Lion (where Harvey Weinstein is pushing a controversial new campaign with real-world resonance), Arrival (which has launched a more emotional phase-two ad strategy), and Manchester by the Sea, to investigate which movies have successfully pivoted to a fresh new talking point, and which have been left in the dust. Listen to the podcast and read an edited excerpt from their conversation below, and subscribe to The Awards Show Show on iTunes.

John Horn: We have one week to go. Things are getting dicey. They’re getting close, they’re getting interesting. Do you agree?

Kyle Buchanan: Absolutely. I think that even though La La Land is still dwarfing the award-season landscape, there’s all sorts of interesting narratives that are playing out. Some of which are sort of springing up on their own accord, and a lot of which are being pushed by canny award-season manipulators. That’s what we’ve come here to talk about today.

JH: It occurs to me that there is a strong similarity between the way Oscar campaigning is done and the way political campaigning is done. I think back to the presidential campaign. You know, the Trump campaign was “Make American Great Again,” “I’m a skilled businessman,” “Crooked Hillary” — that was the Trump message. Hillary was “This guy’s not qualified to be in office, I’ve got the experience, I’ve got the temperament.” Those were the narratives they created. Some grounded in reality, some not at all real. What’s been interesting to watch as the Academy season has entered now its fifth month, is the way in which the narratives have evolved.

KB: Absolutely. And you know, John, as you said those things, what’s telling, I think, is that Trump, who ran the successful campaign, reduced his ideas and his slogans down to very punchy phrases. Something that Hillary was never quite able to do, at least not in a way that stuck. And I think that if you look back over time, over successful Oscar campaigns that were waged, a lot of the time, they would reduce their sort of extratextual narrative to something that was very simple. I think back to The King’s Speech and their “Find Your Voice” campaign. It’s literally coming up with a slogan, a notion, a reason for voting for this movie that obviously includes its artistic success, but is not limited to that.

JH: Right. It makes it a bigger issue. It makes it a referendum on something beyond the film.

KB: We talk a lot about phase-two campaigning, which is after Oscar nominations have come in, how these movies sort of pivot what they focus on. And a lot of the time, that’s when you really see that sort of real-world context brought in. You see movies pivot and focus in on all sorts of interesting, smaller aspects in an attempt to guide the conversation and go that extra mile.

JH: So let’s go back to phase one. Because phase one is kind of the run-up to the nominations and I think we can agree it starts in early September, around the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals. And, at that point, people don’t really know what the movie is about. They haven’t seen them, they haven’t really talked about them, so part of the initial message is, Here is what our movie is about. And I want to talk about Lion, which I saw back in September. And the message immediately with Lion was, “This is an amazing story about a kid who survived being alone in India and found his birth mother.”

KB: But of course, given that it is put out by Harvey Weinstein, who’s the master manipulator of phase-two marketing, it has become something quite different. At least in my mind, in it’s phase two. Now you’ve got ads with luminaries like Salman Rushdie praising the movie. You’ve got Harvey Weinstein stoking controversy over Trump’s travel ban, talking about how getting the film’s young star, Sunny Pawar, into the U.S. to do promo was such a Herculean task, that he doesn’t think he would be able to repeat if this travel ban were more stringent or continues apace. It’s trying to get in on that Asghar Farhadi action. And you know, it’s interesting to look at what’s going on with The Salesman and its phase-two marketing. The Salesman, which is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, its director Asghar Farhadi is not coming to the U.S. due to the travel ban. A lot of people have thought — semi-cynically, but semi-realistically — that this will help the movie’s chances. I was just looking at an ad for it today in the L.A. Weekly, and the big centerpiece quote was A.O. Scott from the New York Times and it said, “Attention must be paid.” And as our producer Darby Maloney so accurately noted, that’s something that you could put on a sign at a rally. It is a way to focus attention and a way to not so subtly suggest a lot of real-world resonance to voting for The Salesman.

JH: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think it’s entirely possible that people can say, “If I’m against the travel ban, if I’m against President Trump, I’m voting Dev Patel for supporting actor for Lion.” And I’m not kidding, I think that is the implicit message of that campaign. I think it’s also part of the message of Asghar Farhadi, who wrote and directed The Salesman: If you want to recognize the damage the travel ban has caused, you have to recognize these films. It’s unbelievably cynical, but I think it’s potentially very effective.

KB: Given that Dev Patel just triumphed at BAFTA, surprising a lot of people, we’re going to see Harvey throw out a phase-three pivot, pivoting to Dev and how inspiring that story is. I think Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes gave them a very solid in there, talking about Dev Patel’s provenance and how this film is a very international story about immigrants, in a way. So we’ll have to see how they pivot there. But I’m also interested in sort of plumbing the other hidden narrative or behind-the-scenes repositionings we’ve seen on the other Best Picture nominees.

JH: The very first screening of La La Land, at the Telluride Film Festival, the message was basically, this is a story about what it means to struggle as an artist. Emma Stone talked about her struggles, about how she wanted to quit acting, how she didn’t believe in herself as a performer. Damien Chazelle talked about the frustration of writing and directing this movie and not getting somebody to believe in it. So it became this story of artists overcoming self-doubt, challenging themselves to continue in their field. It became a story about what it takes to actually put on a show. But I would say that message has evolved as La La Land has done increasingly well.

KB: See, I would actually argue the opposite. Which is that, the irony here, is that La La Land happened to have a phase-two narrative in their phase one: the artist’s struggle. Certainly La La Land, which has dominated the season so far basically from the very jump, has had to, if anything, just play defense — which they haven’t even had to do all that much because I think that the backlash, which mostly lives in the media and on film Twitter, has not tainted this film one iota in Academy minds. But, if anything, I think that La La has pushed the pedal down harder on that notion of the individual artist’s struggle, because it plays better when you’re seen as not the underdog, but the over-dog. Which they have been.

JH: It gives you humility.

KB: It’s incumbent on them to talk about, “No, actually, this was a very hard film to get made.” “No, actually Emma Stone has these doubts, even though she’s incredibly famous.” To drill it down and make it an individual artist’s story is what really resonates with the individual artists of the Academy.

JH: What’s lost in that story is how the movie actually makes you feel. I mean, I took my 16-year-old son to the film, and the last 30 minutes of the film, he was incredibly moved, crying at the beauty and at the kind of the love story that doesn’t quite go the way you want it to. All of that is kind of lost in that narrative, which is kind of unfortunate because it’s ultimately a very affecting film.

KB: I’s so funny that you had mentioned how the movie makes you feel, because that is behind one of my favorite phase-two pivots of this season: Arrival’s. When Arrival first came on the scene, it was heralded as this very brainy sci-fi movie, perhaps even cool to the touch, a film that you had to rewatch numerous times, a real feat of adaptation. Basically a smart man’s sci-fi movie. Whereas if you drive around Los Angeles right now and you look up at those Arrival For Your Consideration billboards, they’re just Amy Adams hugging Jeremy Renner. Like, what?

JH: No space aliens.

KB: It’s so funny to me. They really are selling the emotion of the thing. They appeal to your brain and now they’re saying, well, remember, we made you feel something at that finale, and that’s important. That is the thing that ought to get our vote.

JH: I think it’s a brilliant campaign in many ways because it is a movie that does require attention be paid. I’ve watched the movie three times, it actually does get better the second and third times; you notice tiny little things that are incredibly meaningful. The way that Amy Adams looks at her daughter in certain scenes, the way that her daughter is playing with characters, the way she’s drawing her parents in a drawing. It’s an unbelievably emotional story, far less so about her relationship with Jeremy Renner, but her relationship with her own daughter, about what it means to be a parent, what it means to lose a child …

KB: Well he’s the only person she hugs, so …

JH: She kind of hugs her daughter, but nobody cares about that. But I think it’s been a good strategy because you have to get people in to check out the movie and then you have to get them to remember how they felt when they left the theater. What would you say has been the pivot on Moonlight? Or have they been pretty true to their original message all along?

KB: I have to hand it to Moonlight, I think they’ve run a really good, classy campaign. There is obviously agitation from certain quarters that Moonlight is the anti–La La Land, which we talked about with Barry Jenkins, when he was on this show: He said that he doesn’t see it that way, he really resents the notion that these two films are pitted against one another, but sometimes when it comes to Oscar you can’t really help it. Moonlight, which is seen as the runner-up to La La Land when it comes to being the front runner is also very different than La La Land in a lot of key ways. La La Land is a film that stars two very big, white stars and it’s an homage to classic Hollywood. Moonlight is something newer and different that pushes a lot of stars that people had not really become super acquainted with before. And what I like about this second phase of the Moonlight campaign is it’s really drilling down on those individual stories, you know? We had Naomie Harris on our cover this past week. Mahershala Ali is on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter this week. As simple as it would be to make this Moonlight phase two about what it doesn’t have in common with La La Land and why you ought to vote for it as some sort of political statement, they have run a very classy campaign where it’s like, No, let’s actually underline the resonance of these individual stories.

JH: You can look at the campaign for Moonlight, either by accident or design, and look at the way in which Hidden Figures and Fences are also being presented, and see them as racial alternatives to La La Land, which has no black characters outside of John Legend. That if you really believe in equality, in the way in which movies are made and the way in which they’re cast, that, La La Land is not a multiracial movie. I think we can agree about that, correct?

KB: I mean, there are very few characters in La La Land. It centers on white people. I does have John Legend, it does have, you know, people of color in the margins. There just aren’t very many characters beyond the two leads and John Legend.

JH: I guess my question is, does that mean that that becomes an advantage for Moonlight and Hidden Figures and Fences? Or is it just the nature of having different movies with different casts?

KB: Well, I think it’s interesting. It says a lot about the people who are running these campaigns that we haven’t heard of a major whisper campaign arguing exactly that. Maybe they think it’ll sort of happen on its own without them needing to stoke those fires, but you know, there are more unscrupulous Oscar strategists that would be pushing that very notion. I think they are smart to avoid that: You gotta run a very smart, focused second-phase campaign if you really want to persist. John, we’ve talked a little bit recently about how Manchester by the Sea has somewhat lost momentum in this second phase and I really do think it’s because they couldn’t come up with a very good second-phase narrative. They had a very specific first-phase narrative that they crafted around Casey Affleck; in fact, you could see it in the Variety cover story about him right before the movie came out, the headline was “The Outsider,” positioning Casey Affleck as this reluctant leading man who had all this artistic integrity and essentially had to fight to be in movies. Which I always found a tough thing to swallow, given that he’s brothers with one of the most famous people in Hollywood and leads a movie, sometimes several movies, almost every year. He’s worked with many major actors. So they had a very specific first-phase narrative that has really been jeopardized by all of the talk about the sexual-harassment allegations around Casey Affleck, which he settled. But this talk delves into issues of privilege and influence that run very counter to that first-phase narrative of the outsider. In fact, it positions him as the ultimate insider: He is insulated by privilege, he has a team that goes after people who talk about this, and I don’t think they’ve effectively come up with a pivot.

JH: Meaning, the people who are working for him are making sure that journalists are not writing stories about him settling these two sexual-harassment suits.

KB: And so I think, though you do see Casey still around, you do still see Kenneth Lonergan still around, they haven’t done a great job of giving them a new hook or giving voters a new way to look at that movie.

JH: You’re absolutely right. Because I think that if your message falls out of favor and that message is all that you have, you’re essentially Ted Cruz. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m a tough guy. I’ll talk truth to power, but I’m not very likable,” and that becomes your greatest liability. I want to ask you too about movies that never were able to get a narrative. And I think Loving has to be kind of high on that list. I put 20th Century Women in that category as well. And these are really good movies, but they never quite stuck. And maybe they didn’t quite stick because not enough people liked them. That it’s really a meritocracy in that regard. But is it also the case that, say, with Annette Bening, or with Loving, they didn’t come up with a story that resonated with voters?

KB: With 20th Century Women, that is part of the reason I argued that it should have been released much, much earlier than Christmas. I think A24 didn’t do that because they had Moonlight, which came out earlier in the season and obviously has done quite well. But what you really needed with 20th Century Women was for it to come out earlier so that you could get all of those really key Annette Bening profile pieces, those really iconic, longform, cover-story plumbings of this way-past-due actress who is delivering one of the best performances of her career. And it just didn’t happen, so there was no narrative there.

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