Professionals in the field no longer know what disproportionate metaphor to use to talk about it. “Olympic Games“, “world championships“, “a presidential election“, “the great mass of cinema“. If ordinary mortals have the New Year to define a year, cinema has the Oscars ceremony.
In case it wasn’t clear, the Oscars night is the pinnacle of the 7th art. A climax that is being prepared months, even years in advance. This race is a perpetual cycle only framed by this evening of a few hours, where a year of cinema hopes to be annotated for the eternity of the precious “Academy Award for Best Picture” and enter the legend.
Excessive budgets and improbable goodies
Oscar nominations don’t fall from the sky. Behind a victory, there are months and months of promotional campaign. Not the one that is intended for us, the public, with shots of trailers, world previews and Morris columns, but the one made with the 9,487 voters of the Academy of Oscars.
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Because it is in the hands of these almost 10,000 precious people from the world of cinema that the consecration of the films of the year is played out. The vast majority of voters are actors but all trades are represented. The identity of the members is not known, the Academy does not publish an official list, but the studios have fairly precise personal lists to know with whom they should lobby. Because that’s what it’s all about: lobbying.
So much so that the Academy had to impose rules over the years to regulate. The studios recruit entire teams solely dedicated to the Oscar campaign. A huge budget is disbursed by the studios, to be sure that everyone has seen their film, has it in mind when voting and above all, has liked it. For this, there are private screenings, in the presence of various prestigious members of the film crew, actors and directors. But also formal evenings dedicated to the film, photo exhibitions of the director, improbable goodies.
For Rome, the black-and-white masterpiece by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, Netflix had sent pillows flocked with the film’s title. For the movie Dumplin’, Netflix had organized an event with a performance by Dolly Parton and offered Christmas decorations in the shape of her pink guitar. But above all, there are the poster campaigns, called “For your consideration”, where millions of dollars are spent on billboards in Los Angeles and ad pages in American magazines. Budgets break records every year.
According to WalletHub, studios spend an average of $100 million per year on these specific campaigns. According to the magazine varietyNetflix reportedly spent $30 million on the campaign around Rome… That’s double the film’s budget. Rome won three Oscars in 2019. But not the coveted Best Picture.
Can a relentless promotional campaign make a film loved? Guarantee him votes? Often, yes. But a counter-example upsets everything. Actress Mo’Nique, lead role of precious, had deliberately refused to participate in this campaign. She still won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2009.
“The Award Season“
The race for the Oscars is part of a much larger race called the “Award Season”. It’s like a presidential campaign, but annual and continuous, of which the Oscar ceremony, generally held at the end of February, is the apotheosis and the end point.
This “price season” is punctuated by a multitude of events. The festivals, the best known of which are those of Cannes, Berlin and Venice. But there are also a myriad of parallel awards: from the famous but controversial Golden Globes, to the more niche ceremonies like the New Mexico Critics Awards. Regardless of their notoriety, any opportunity is good to get people talking about the film.
Besides, the current season isn’t even over when the new one begins. From January, the race is launched with the Sundance festival, a meeting of independent cinema created in 1980 by actor Robert Redford, where Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino cut their teeth.
It’s the place where small films have a chance of being bought by big distributors (like Manchester by the Sea in 2017, acquired by Amazon, which would end up nominated for the Oscar for best film). Sundance can totally set the tone for the movie year ahead.
The proof in February 2021, where a small film called CODA picked up five awards at Sundance, allowing him to be bought by Apple’s platform for a record $25 million before campaigning for the Oscars. Besides, who won the statuette for best film at the last ceremony (that of the slap of Will Smith)? CODA. A film that will have had a marketing journey of more than a year, but culminating in the Holy Grail.
In fact, a lot of celebrities like to joke (although) that they spend more time promoting their movies than making those movies. Festivals, even the most indie ones, matter. And there is no lack of it. Berlinale, Cannes, Mostra, Telluride, Toronto, Deauville, San Sebastian… so many opportunities to receive prizes and the precious Holy Grail of Oscar buzz.
A French film at the Oscars 2023?
The 2023 Oscars reward films released in their country of production between January 1 and December 31, 2022. This is the case for Saint-Omer by Alice Diop. And he’s on course for a nomination. Crowned with the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September, this poignant story about the trial of an infanticidal mother has entered the race for the Oscar for best foreign film.
Its director and the two producers, Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral, multiply the round trips to Los Angeles and New York to attend the famous private screenings. A godmother of choice has set her sights on the work. Director Chloé Zhao, Oscar winner in 2021 for nomadlandhad such a crush on the film that it is now she who leads the questions/answers during private screenings.
“It is not the one who will have put the most money in his campaign who is guaranteed to win“, assure us the two producers, who already know the Oscars well since they were part of the team of Miserablesnominated for the best foreign film in 2020, specifying as follows:
“The hardest thing about this campaign is that there is no clear indication that a campaign is being used for nothing”.
It would seem that beyond the obvious and indisputable quality of Saint-Omer, the campaign works. The film is part of the last shortlist before the official Oscar nominations on January 24. The ceremony will take place on March 12, 2023.
Behind the scenes of lobbying
It’s hard to talk about the Oscar race without mentioning Harvey Weinstein. convicted of rape in New York and California, it has long reigned supreme at the Oscars. Even today, more than a hundred women have accused him of sexual violence since the case exploded in 2017.
Weinstein notably drew his power, and his impunity, from his ability to put awards in the hands of an actress. Jennifer Lawrence made a joke about it when she got a Golden Globes for happiness therapy (produced by the Weinstein Company):
“Harvey, thank you for killing those you had to kill to get me here.”
She’s far from the only one, as Weinstein is the most thanked man in acceptance speeches — more than God, that is to say. Harvey Weinstein, producer but above all communicator, has completely changed the face of the race. The documentary The Untouchable Harvey Weinsteinsays it clearly:
“Harvey’s priority was the Oscars. He had understood the financial value that an award could bring to a film. Harvey was the first person to mobilize an entire team of Oscar specialists.”
The techniques he introduced are still used today.
Because this is the sinews of war. An Oscar boosts a film’s box office, admissions and therefore profits. Receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, or the first prize at the Sundance festival has very little impact on admissions. A Palme d’or, at the limit, but it is not comparable to an Oscar for best film which changes everything.
Xavier Albert, General Manager of Universal Picture France, explains to us:
“Even at the height of the Oscars identity crisis, there has never been a year where a statuette has not impacted the cinema attendance of a film. The Oscars have always had a definite impact on the box office.”
Following the Oscar for best film for 1917 by Sam Mendes, admissions for the film rose 69%, according to BoxOffice Mojo. Same for The Four Daughters of Doctor March by Greta Gerwig, who earns 21%. Xavier Albert still:
“Beyond the box office, it anchors a film in history. Forever we remain the best film of such a year”.
An Oscar is also and above all that: an invaluable eternal recognition for which many studios are ready to pay the price.
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But in fact, how does one take his film to the Oscars? Behind the scenes of the (very expensive) race for the statuette