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How to win an Oscar in 34 days

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Oscar Illo
ILLUSTRATION by THOMAS PITILLI for EW; Oscar: AMPAS

Pity the poor Oscar nominees. By the time they reached the Academy Award nominations announcement last week, many of those inducted in marquee categories were feeling something close to bone-weary in their moment of triumph. Having pressed the flesh and smiled for the camera at an unending procession of movie-critic meet-and-greets, champagne toasts, and press events just to get to Oscar’s finalist round, these actors and directors felt fatigue compounded by a ­terrible new knowledge. After veering dangerously close to overexposure via attendance at lesser awards shows, industry panels, and countless red carpets during the ­unofficial five-month stretch of awards season, the contenders knew the real work of bringing home Academy gold still lay ahead.

Hailed across Hollywood as “Phase Two,” the span of weeks between the Jan. 15 nominations and the close of Oscar balloting 34 days later typically showcases a last-ditch promotional blitzkrieg that can decide the difference between glory at the Dolby Theatre and the awkwardness of a grimacing cutaway reaction shot. Phase Two is fourth-quarter football, a period of grand studio marketing gestures and come-from-behind onslaughts. But unlike other times during the year when filmmakers and publicity departments are free to go crazy when it comes to ­getting Academy voters’ attention, this period is governed by hard-and-fast rules.

In addition to nitpicky policies such as no more than one email per week to Academy members and no sending more than one screener disc to each member, the fun stuff is kept in check: no more wining and dining Academy ­voters with complimentary food and booze. No more than four screenings of nominated ­movies followed by star-studded Q&A sessions. In other words, no more of what Oscar whisperers call “value-added opportunities” for members to schmooze with famous people.

“In Phase Two, you have to be more strategic,” says one veteran awards campaigner who, like everyone in this story, declined to be identified because of ongoing Oscar politicking. “Phase One is more like a political campaign. But there’s more legwork in Phase Two. Every appearance is vital.”

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Birdman star and Best Actor nominee Michael Keaton needed to find the stamina to field crack-of-dawn calls from a variety of media outlets on Oscar-nomination morning and not close out the day until some 15 hours later, when he collected three Critics’ Choice awards before falling off the stage. He joked that he “took the Birdman flying thing way too far,” but it would be understandable to blame exhaustion.

While Oscar nominations are broken down by section—with actors voting for actors, cinematographers voting for cinematographers, and so on—final ­balloting is a free-for-all where every Academy member casts votes in every category. And that curious wrinkle has made gala events honoring Hollywood’s big three industry guilds—which all occur during Phase Two—key battlegrounds.

“Being a presenter at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Producers Guild Awards, the Directors Guild Awards is really important,” says another Oscar-campaign guru who is also a voting Academy member. “Winning an award and giving a speech at those shows is crucial.” In other words, getting to the podiums at these events is a rare and well-timed opportunity for nominees to ­literally stump for their projects in front of Academy members.

To hear it from another longtime ­studio awards-season specialist, Phase Two can be more narrowly viewed as “providing a rationale”: “It’s about answering the question ‘Why should this film win?’ It should take voters back to an emotional place, to what they loved about a film enough to have nominated it in the first place. And that can be subtle or obvious.”

These weeks are also a time for campaigners to get crafty when it comes to increasing overall awareness for their projects. Fox Searchlight took a fairly direct approach the day after Oscar nominations and announced that it would theatrically rerelease Best ­Picture nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel (which came out in March and has already hit DVD). “People can experience it on the big screen who didn’t see it the first time, and it gives a great ­reason to advertise the movie in the papers and on TV,” says a publicist from a rival studio. “It’s a great Phase Two idea. There is value in being visible.”

In a more elaborate presentation, the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the creative quorum behind Best Picture nominee Selma—director Ava DuVernay, producer-costar Oprah Winfrey, star David Oyelowo, and co-nominated Best Original Song composers Common and John ­Legend—traveled to Selma, Ala., to appear at a march in recognition of the civil rights achievements chronicled in their film. Legend and Common also performed a sundown set on the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of the tide-turning 1965 confrontation between freedom marchers and police as well as the setting for Selma’s onscreen showdown.

“Every single person who was on that bridge is a hero,” Winfrey told the marchers, urging them to honor “Martin Luther King as an idea, Selma as an idea, and what can happen with strategy, with discipline, and with love.” Phase Three: From her mouth to Oscar’s ears.

Dylan McDermottFor more on the Oscar race—plus our expert Grammy Award predictions—pick up this week’s issue of EW, on stands Friday.

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