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A Brief History of Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar Campaign Tactics

Producer Harvey Weinstein attends the Royal film performance of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” on December 5, 2013 in London, United Kingdom. Photo: Miramax

Harvey Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax and the current co-chairman of the Weinstein Company, pioneered the modern Oscar campaign. Through a mix of big schmoozy events, whisper campaigns, and old-school cold-calling, Weinstein has developed a reputation over the last 25 years for getting award nominations. The results speak for themselves, with his films having secured more than 300 Academy Award nominations to date. So, with the latest Oscar campaign season in full force, we thought we’d look back at the many tricks and schemes Weinstein — the man who once got Shakespeare in Love enough votes to beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture — has deployed to rack up all those nominations.

My Left Foot was Harvey’s first big Oscar campaign. Weinstein talked about the experience in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures: “In those days, the studios had a lock on the Oscars, because none of the indies campaigned aggressively. The only thing that we did to change the rules was, rather than just sitting it out and getting beat because somebody has more money, more power, more influence, we ran a guerrilla campaign.” This meant putting on meet-and-greet events where Academy members could meet Miramax film talent. Weinstein even convinced director Jim Sheridan and producer Noel Pearson to move to Los Angeles from Ireland, so they could more easily attend such gatherings.

— Believing that you could win an Oscar by a single vote, Weinstein went to great lengths to make sure Academy members saw his movies. In Down and Dirty Pictures, former publicist Mark Urman discussed how this was achieved: “[They] set up screenings at the Motion Picture Retirement Home, because Academy members live there, even if they’re on life support. They find out where people holiday in the period between Christmas and New Year’s, and if it’s Aspen, they have screenings in Aspen. If it’s in Hawaii, they have screenings in Hawaii. They actually called people at home.” It’s a process Harvey has continued ever since.

— He had Best Actor nominee for My Left Foot Daniel Day-Lewis testify in the Senate for the Disability Act.

— When Sling Blade came out, Billy Bob Thornton was virtually unknown, so Harvey Weinstein launched an aggressive campaign to educate academy members. That year, the New York Times published an account of this tactic as experienced by one Academy voter: 

To hear some members of the academy tell it, Miramax called both early and often. John Ericson, a retired actor who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., said he was called several times recently by a representative from the studio. In the first call, this person asked Mr. Ericson if he had received Sling Blade and urged him to watch it.

A few days later, the representative called back to gauge Mr. Ericson’s reaction. The caller also promoted the performance of Billy Bob Thornton, a relative newcomer who wrote, directed and starred in this film about a man who is released from a hospital for the criminally insane 25 years after he murdered his mother and her lover.

’He said: “Didn’t you think he was wonderful? I hope it will be something worthy of a nomination,”’ Mr. Ericson recalled.

As it happens, Miramax’s one-on-one lobbying proved successful. Mr. Ericson wound up nominating Mr. Thornton for best actor, even though he had, before then, never heard of Sling Blade and originally assumed it was a Sylvester Stallone movie.

Nor did Miramax’s wooing of Mr. Ericson end there. Knowing that there are a handful of other academy members in Santa Fe, Miramax scheduled a screening for academy members there in early February. Mr. Ericson and others were able to see Marvin’s Room, Sling Blade and the Woody Allen comedy Everyone Says I Love You on the big screen at their local cinema.

— With two Best Picture nominees, Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love, Weinstein pulled out all the stops. As Nikki Finke reported in New York at the time: “Miramax pays a fleet of ultraveteran Hollywood publicists (who also happen to be Academy members) — including Warren Cowan, Dick Guttman, Gerry Pam, and Murray Weissman — not to generate press coverage but to schmooze their prominent Academy colleagues.” 

Life Is Beautiful star and director Roberto Benigni took advantage of the publicity push, in particular. In Down and Dirty Pictures, Urman recalled: “Benigni moved into L.A. for a month during the peak of the voting period, and every night somebody was having a party for him. Roberto made a lot of friends, and it won him an acting Oscar.”

— After the Oscar nominations were announced, Miramax funded a “Welcome to America” party for John Madden, Shakespeare’s British director; Academy members, including director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter-director Jay Presson Allen, and screenwriter David Newman, attended it. As Finke pointed out, this should’ve been held in violation of a 1997 Academy rule barring studios from hosting events for their nominees to which Academy members are invited. So how did Weinstein get around it? By explaining, “I’m sorry there were three Academy members present, but it was a press event, and you have to have celebrities at a press event to get the press there.”

— Weinstein spent a record amount of money to secure a Shakespeare upset over the heavy favorite Saving Private Ryan. Finke: “True independents might spend up to $250,000 on an Oscar campaign; the majors, $2 million. Miramax is estimated by competitors to have spent at least $5 million on its campaign for Shakespeare.” Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks, the studio behind Saving, admitted to the New York Times that Weinstein’s spending made them spend more just to compete. 

— Weinstein was able to secure a Best Picture nomination for the unlikely Chocolat with, as USA Today put it at the time, “such eyebrow-raising moves as a newspaper ad in which Jesse Jackson and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League praised the film.” 

— With their In the Bedroom going up against favorite A Beautiful Mind, Miramax reportedly perpetrated a “smear campaign unprecedented in the history of the Academy Awards for its viciousness.” According to Down and Dirty Pictures, this involved pointing a Los Angeles Times writer to a Matt Drudge piece about how A Beautiful Mind omitted the parts of the original biography relating to John Nash’s alleged homosexuality. Then after ballots went out, news came out of “Jew-bashing passages” from the book. 

—Weinstein was involved with four of the five Best Picture nominees: Gangs of New York, Chicago, The Hours, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (on which he and his brother are credited as producers). Despite all these horses in the same race, Weinstein throws all of his weight behind getting Martin Scorsese his first Oscar for Best Director. As Biskind writes in Down and Dirty Pictures, “[Weinstein] had [Scorsese] putting in appearances and gratefully accepting tacky awards at every rubber chicken dinner between Los Feliz and Santa Monica.”

— Writing for New York, Anne Thompson explained how extreme the campaign was: “Is Gangs of New York too violent? Surround Martin Scorsese at a Women in Film lunch at Spago with Oscar nominees Diane Ladd, Sharon Stone, Winona Ryder, and Juliette Lewis. Is Scorsese too much of a Hollywood outsider? Bring him to L.A. and have producer Irwin Winkler (New York, New York) throw him a Golden Globes party full of local writers and directors. Is Scorsese producing a blues concert at Radio City Music Hall? Make sure his name is plastered across the marquee. Are actors protesting that they can’t use their sag membership cards to get into movies for free? Take over the Beverly Hills Music Hall, book Chicago and Gangs, and welcome all card-carrying members.”

— Weinstein got former Academy president and director of The Sound of Music Robert Wise to write an op-ed praising Scorsese and Gangs of New York. Miramax in turn used that op-ed in ads for the movie with the headline reading, “Two time Academy Award winner Robert Wise declares Scorsese deserves the Oscar for Gangs of New York.” It was later revealed that a Miramax publicist actually wrote it and had the 88-year-old Wise sign it. (This resulted in the Academy banning ads that include quotes from Academy members.)

— Biskind writes that after The Pianist won Best Picture at the BAFTAs, Miramax panicked. A Miramax publicist called The Pianist director Roman Polanski a “rapist” and “child molester.” Then an almost 30-year-old deposition from Polanski’s victim appeared on the Smoking Gun website. It’s hard to say whether Miramax unearthed the document, but, according to Biskind, Miramax did have their people fan the flames.

— Taking advantage of a loophole stemming from a recent rule change, Miramax’s City of God received four Oscar nominations despite failing to be nominated when it was originally eligible for the Best Foreign Film category at the 2002 Oscars. Weinstein told Entertainment Weekly, ”We made a conscious decision to keep this movie in theaters for 54 weeks.” Miramax rereleased the film three times. 

— When front-runner Slumdog Millionaire was hit suddenly with negative press implying that its filmmakers had exploited the movie’s Indian child actors, people assumed Weinstein was behind it. His response: “What can I say? When you’re Billy the Kid and people around you die of natural causes, everyone thinks you shot them.”

— After pushing very hard to have the The Reader released before the end of year (to a point that so frustrated Scott Rudin that he took his name off the film) so that it would be eligible for award season, Weinstein mounted a targeted attack focusing on, as EW explains, “the Academy’s aging Jewish population,” by screening the film at “Jewish cultural hot spots as the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.” Also, he courted endorsements from the Anti-Defamation League as well as Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. 

— Weinstein, who was pushing Inglourious Basterds at the time, was rumored to have been involved in an anti–Hurt Locker whisper campaign, attacking the film’s realism. Soldiers came forward, calling the film’s portrayal of war inaccurate. 

— With his The King’s Speech up against rival Rudin’s The Social Network, Weinstein went particularly hard on event-throwing. There was a post-nomination party hosted by Ridley Scott, Jennifer Lopez, and Mick Jagger; a star-studded party hosted by Arianna Huffington; a screening attended by the media elite, like Rupert Murdoch and Katie Couric; and much more.

— Leading up to the Academy Awards, Weinstein created a stir over editing the original film to make a PG-13 version that would appeal to a wide audience. Some suspect it was ultimately a PR stunt to get the film more attention. 

— Weinstein held an academy screening of The Artist hosted by two of Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters.

— The Weinstein Company sent a for-your-consideration e-mail to The Hollywood Reporter’s subscribers. It included a quote from critic Thelma Adams: “It’s been TWENTY-NINE YEARS SINCE MERYL STREEP WON AN OSCAR and she certainly deserves to win for her performance in The Iron Lady!” This should’ve been against the rules, because for-your-considerations aren’t allowed to reference past awards. Weinstein, however, found a loophole by sending it through a third party. 

As we reported last year, Weinstein secretly hired Obama’s deputy campaign manager to help with the campaign for The Silver Linings Playbook.

— On the last day of Oscar voting, Weinstein issued a press release saying that David O. Russell will be working with Jennifer Lawrence again on The Ends of the Earth. Russell was quoted as saying about Lawrence: “She is the most dedicated person I know. She is devoted to her family, and they have been the true inspiration for her … Her acting is effortless, and she always makes it look easy.” The thing is, as The Hollywood Reporter wrote, Russell had not, in fact, signed on to direct the project. Knowing the news would make its way around, it was allegedly a last-minute attempt by Weinstein to draw attention from voters.

— In a move reminiscent of the My Left Foot campaign, Philomena Lee, the real woman who inspired the Weinsteins’ Philomena, went to Washington, D.C., to discuss adoption reforms a couple of weeks after the film’s Best Picture nomination was announced. She met with senators Claire McCaskill and Chris Murphy to push for making adoption records more easily accessible.

Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar Campaign History