A Shot at the Oscars Podium, Thanks to a Publicist

L.A. film publicist Lisa Taback devotes half of the year to awards campaigns.
L.A. film publicist Lisa Taback devotes half of the year to awards campaigns. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
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By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Just before last year's Cannes Film Festival, in a tiny screening room in Los Angeles, a publicist named Lisa Taback was one of the first people to see "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The producers knew the film was a longshot for an Academy Award: an arty, dreamy movie with no stars, featuring a bedridden hero who couldn't speak.

Taback was moved by "Diving Bell." "Without anybody positioning the movie to me," she recalls now in language perhaps only a publicist would use, "it meant something special." She told the producers, "This is an Academy film." She was hired to manage the movie's awards campaign, and nine months later, "Diving Bell" -- a foreign-language film about a quadriplegic magazine editor, directed by an eccentric artist-auteur who wears pajamas to parties -- was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director for Julian Schnabel. It defied nearly everyone's early predictions. Except for Lisa Taback's.

Taback is an Oscar publicist. From midsummer until Oscar voting ends in January, the six people who work in her L.A. office coordinate the awards campaigns of films big and small. (This year, Taback is charged with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," starring Brad Pitt.) Nearly every movie with dreams of Oscar has a publicist -- or several publicists -- making its case not to audiences, but to the 6,000-plus members of the Academy, as well as various guilds, and anybody else who hands out prizes in the Hollywood awards firmament. Sure, every movie studio has publicists, but these independent awards publicists are specifically brought in to turn celluloid into gold.

So what do Oscar publicists do, exactly? Everything from coordinating dozens of screenings for Academy members to calling an individual reporter to gripe that a piece was too kind to a competitor. Awards publicists arrange appearances by actors and directors; they throw cocktail parties; they mail out DVD screeners by the thousands and follow up to make sure their film reaches the top of the pile. They lobby Oscar bloggers; they place interviews and "For Your Consideration" ads.

It comes down to this, says Cynthia Swartz, a partner at Manhattan-based awards publicity firm 42West: "You're not gonna make 'em like a movie they won't otherwise like," she says, "but you have to make sure [voters] see your movie."

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Behind a sleek lobby, 42West's offices in a high-rise next to Madame Tussauds are cramped and overcrowded, with employees jammed into a busy, loud maze of cubicles, promoting films such as the high-toned "Revolutionary Road" with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio and the gritty Italian Mafia drama "Gomorra."

Publicists' campaigns to get awards for their clients are not new, of course. The dean of Hollywood press agents, Warren Cowan, liked to brag before his death in May that he'd birthed the Oscar campaign in 1946 when he pitched the Los Angeles Times on Joan Crawford's Oscar hopes for "Mildred Pierce."

But in the mid-'90s, Miramax, led by Harvey Weinstein, pursued Oscars with a drive -- and a budget -- previously unknown in the industry. Miramax placed more ads, lobbied more voters, dissed more rivals and sent out more freebies. When Miramax succeeded -- with "The English Patient" in 1996 and "Shakespeare in Love" in 1998 -- studios big and small took note.

Put off by Miramax's bald ambition, the Academy began barring direct-mail ads, many freebies and the disparaging of rival films in literature. Yet the Miramax model still reigns -- every awards hopeful gets an all-out Oscar campaign -- but those campaigns are mostly run by independent publicists. Some, like Swartz and Taback, are veterans of the go-go Miramax '90s -- and devote their complete attention to the Academy from Labor Day to Oscar Night.

The campaigns don't come cheap. The bill at an independent agency for a full-scale campaign can hit $500,000 a month. Warner Bros. spent upward of $15 million on its Oscar campaign for "Million Dollar Baby," the Los Angeles Times reported, including the efforts of studio publicists and independent consultants.

You're not just paying for the 50-person super-agency in Times Square. Sometimes, in an Oscar campaign, you hire a publicist because he's old, and he knows a lot of other old Academy voters. Just as a winning color-war team at summer camp features the fat kid perfect for tug-of-war and the sneaky kid perfect for capture the flag, a major-movie Oscar campaign often includes a crew of micro-agencies brought in to target specific sectors of the awards community.

Publicist Ronni Chasen specializes in music Oscars. Last year, she represented "Once," the Irish mini-musical, which won for Best Song against three from the Disney hit "Enchanted." Chasen's campaign strategy was to bring her unknown stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, into the spotlight. "Glen and Mar were very open to playing and singing their song," Chasen recalls. "Rarely do you have stars, who can also sing, who are also available to do all the things that they did -- and who are so charming."

There are also L.A. publicists who specialize in delivering the Hollywood Foreign Press, the cinematographers, and yes, the elderly. Just need an extra big mouth talking up your movie to his Oscar-voting friends? He can be yours, starting at a couple of thousand dollars a month.

* * *

Awards publicists talk a lot about creating a "narrative" for your movie, not unlike advisers do for a candidate in a political campaign. That's different, of course, than the narrative of your movie. The narrative of "The Departed," for example, is that a crooked cop and an undercover cop double-cross each other, and eventually everyone gets shot. For Oscar purposes, though, the narrative for "The Departed" was simple: Martin Scorsese deserves an Oscar. Other narratives that brought nominations: The big, splashy movie musical is reborn, again ("Chicago"). A gang of plucky New Zealanders bring the most popular novels in the world to life ("Lord of the Rings"). A stubborn director makes the biggest movie ever, about the biggest boat ever, and winds up with the biggest hit ever ("Titanic").

But perhaps the most potent narrative these days is that of the underdog -- the quirky little movie like "Juno" or "Little Miss Sunshine" that, against the odds, captures a Best Picture nomination. The publicist who created those two campaigns, former Texas film critic Barry Dale Joseph of ID PR, is known for creative flourishes -- mailing hamburger phones to press for "Juno," or handing out "Little Miss Sunshine" cupcakes at Los Angeles brunch spots during Academy voting -- that help cement films in voters' minds as plucky, can-do movies that deserve their shot at glory, too. Joseph's chief client this year? Why, it's the very film being touted by Oscar watchers as this year's lovable underdog, "Slumdog Millionaire."

But what about the true underdogs -- the tiny independent movies whose distributors can't afford hundreds of thousands of dollars for a major awards campaign? Oscilloscope Laboratories, which is distributing its first feature film, the low-budget indie "Wendy & Lucy," hired 42West this year. But just for one category: to promote its big-name star, former Oscar nominee Michelle Williams, for Best Actress. Getting nominated "would put us on the map," says David Fenkel, co-founder, with Adam Yauch, better known as the Beastie Boys' MCA. But Fenkel stressed to Swartz that she needed to work within a budget. Meanwhile, Overture Films, also a newcomer, is running the Oscar campaign for its critically acclaimed small film, "The Visitor," in-house, coordinating the mailing of over 6,000 screeners. What advantages does Overture have over, say, 42West? "None!" laughs Peter Adee, an executive at Overture.

* * *

So is the awards publicity machine actually changing what people consider to be an Oscar film? The modern Oscar movie seems to be a movie that people say is an Oscar movie -- that is, one of the 15 or so films with independent awards publicists running full-on awards campaigns. The movie most widely considered a front-runner for Best Picture this year, for example, is not a biopic, or an epic romance, or the saga of a disabled war veteran who teaches inner-city youths to play the bagpipes. It's an antic drama shot on digital video about a Mumbai street urchin. But because Barry Dale Joseph is working on "Slumdog Millionaire," the slumdog underdog, already nominated for a Golden Globe, has become the favorite.

Which begs the question: Do awards flacks ever worry that the movies they're pushing are unworthy? Are they worried, in short, about buying a bad movie an Oscar?

Not really, they say. "The Academy is not a critical body," says Fredell Pogodin, a publicist who specializes in foreign-language films. "People forget that."

Amanda Lundberg, a partner at 42West, puts it more bluntly. Asked about "Crash," a movie she helped usher to an upset Oscar win in 2005, and a movie that many critics vocally hate, Lundberg is frank: "It doesn't matter what people think," she says. "It matters what people who have a ballot think."

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