Monday, February 24, 2014

On the Campaign Bus: Bludgeoned to Death By Questions and Answers

So many stars, so many questions, same old answers

The celebrity Q&A has become one of the main devices (ploy or contrivance might be the better term) Oscar campaign managers rely on to sway Academy members. There have been so many this year in particular that voters can’t keep track of them. Perhaps this is the point. Studios want it to appear as if an endless groundswell of enthusiasm (called “buzz” in Movieland) surrounds their Oscar contenders, so that all of Hollywood will stand up and salute. (Leo and Marty have invited us to hear them speak again. That film must be important!)
Academy hustle: Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

Night after night from October through mid-February, the studios trot out their top-shelf stars, directors, producers, composers, writers and other creatives – sometimes adding a dessert reception or other blandishments – hoping to create a positive impression that will linger at least until the last ballot is cast. On some evenings, the casts of two or three films compete for attention (dueling Q&As!).

The roster of A-List stars on the circuit this season is impressive: Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Dern, Martin Scorcese, Alfonso Cuaron, David O. Russell, Amy Adams, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Carell, Joel and Ethan Coen all have turned up on multiple occasions, not only in Los Angeles, but also in New York, London, and, for a few, in Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and other posh communities where movie industry VIPs either reside or recreate.

Even pop star Taylor Swift appeared one night at the DGA “in conversation” for her song “Sweeter Than Fiction” from the British comedy “One Chance.” (It was not nominated.)

Because everyone is doing it, everyone has to do it. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a big star who hasn’t participated in at least one Q&A this year, other than Robert Redford who declined to do anything in support of his Oscar-worthy performance in “All Is Lost” and then, when he failed to get a nomination, famously groused to the press that the movie’s distributors did a poor job. Talk about chutzpah.

The catalyst for all of this probably occurred in 2000 as part of the very effective Academy campaign for “Gladiator.” The crowd-pleasing epic had opened in May to capture the summer box-office. By fall the movie was played out, just at the moment when the big Oscar guns were looming on the horizon. Moreover, while the movie was wildly popular with audiences, critical response had been poor all along. In assessing its Oscar chances, one journalist dismissed it as a “popcorn movie.” To make things even worse, the DVD of “Gladiator” was due out in November, further diminishing the film’s luster as an awards contender.

To reintroduce the film to Academy voters, DreamWorks, its distributor, turned to a long-forgotten movie marketing technique, the roadshow. If you are old enough to have seen films like “Around the World in 80 Days” or “West Side Story” first run in a major city, you most likely went to a large movie palace where the picture played, usually, twice a day, once in the afternoon followed by an evening showing. Tickets were more expensive, and you could buy a hardbound souvenir program. The idea was to make the film seem like a major event before it went into wide release.

DreamWorks followed this scenario, minus the souvenir program, when it presented a one-week special engagement of “Gladiator” at the AMC Century City, one of the more prestigious Los Angeles houses and frequently patronized by many in the movie industry. The film played a matinee and evening showing, supported by splashy double-truck ads in the Los Angeles Times and trade papers urging moviegoers (meaning Oscar voters) to see it on the big screen again, the way it was intended to be shown. And after each evening show, one of the films stars or filmmakers would be there in person to talk with the audience in a Q&A format.

It sounds simple enough, but it worked, bringing fresh attention to the movie in a way that resonated with Academy voters. “Gladiator” received 12 nominations and won five Oscars, including Best Picture. The following year, other studios started hosting Q&As with their stars.

Perhaps the very first celebrity Q&A in support of an Oscar campaign took place on a series of Saturday mornings in late 1967 at Nate ‘n Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills. The restaurant was known for its show business clientele, many of whom showed up regularly for breakfast on Saturday. Mel Brooks was having trouble getting attention for “The Producers.” Its distributor, Embassy, thought it in bad taste and tried to dump the film. With no studio support, Brooks’ publicist came up with the gimmick to reserve a large table at the front of the celebrity hangout each weekend morning. The comedian’s friends would join him, along with a few journalists also invited to sit in. According to the publicist, this comprised the entire Academy campaign. Both Gene Wilder and Brooks were nominated. Brooks won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

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