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Three Anonymous Oscars Insiders on What Awards-Campaign Season Is Really Like

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There's always the chance of an upset (or, god forbid, another Slap Heard ‘Round the World), but as of now this Sunday’s Academy Awards feel as predetermined as any Oscars in recent memory. An Oppenheimer sweep feels imminent, Lily Gladstone seems primed for a coronation, and Robert Downey Jr. and Da'Vine Joy Randolph both appear likely to cap off their respective awards-season runs with one more trip to the podium.

But the truth is, even the most seemingly uneventful and preordained Oscars ceremony represents the culmination of many months—and sometimes years—of hard work and campaigning. “It's a very odd world, but keep in mind that people campaign viciously and vigorously for a very long time and spend a lot of money to get there,” an awards insider recently told GQ. “It's not just, like, you get nominations—people really push for them.”

Forget Capote’s Swans. During awards season, every actor, director and producer with a film in contention becomes a duck: as composed, gracious and unruffled they might appear to casual observers, they're all paddling furiously and tirelessly just below the surface. “Oscar campaigning is a lot of work,” a filmmaker told GQ. “It's really at a volume and intensity similar to major political campaigns.”

In the run-up to this weekend's ceremony, GQ talked to three awards insiders—a former Oscar winner, a voter from the Academy’s younger, more diverse voting body, and an awards-campaign veteran who works in distribution—about the campaign trail, the awards-hungry companies who've upended the game, and (of course) Bradley Cooper.

The Foreign Filmmaker Who Became a Voter in the 2020s

I found out I was invited when it came out in the trades—I didn’t get any sort of communication beforehand. The first year that I became a member, I was a lot more gung ho about attending events, because there's that exclusivity and you feel like you're part of this esteemed circle. This year, I really just went to a luncheon with Martin Scorsese.

I want to be as objective and impartial about the films that I vote on. And I feel like just being in the presence of the filmmaker at these events—and especially if the event is organized and done well—there's an emotional factor that comes in that either works in favor of or against the film. I feel like these are extraneous, sentimental factors that I don't really need.

Logistically, having to go to these events takes time and money. And you know what? The annual dues are not cheap. They’re like $400, and you’re only eligible to vote once you’ve paid your dues. And if you're a member that's based abroad with a currency that's not as strong as the dollar? That's really going to cost you. Anyway, for me, the biggest perk of being an Oscar voter for me is being able to stay at home and watch all these nominated movies on the Academy’s streaming website.

My favorite contender this year is [Jonathan Glazer’s] The Zone of Interest. It's a truly radical film in the formal sense. It takes a subject that could easily have been typical Oscar fodder—I mean, you have Schindler's List, you have Sophie's Choice, you have a ton of films about this subject. But I think [Zone of Interest] reimagines the emotional experience of the audience with the theme because of its formal and structural choices, especially in sound design. I feel like the fact that it's gotten these many nominations is a good reflection on the Academy. I want it to go all the way. Picture is most likely going to go to Oppenheimer, but I hope that Glazer takes home the Best Director prize.

Some of my favorites didn’t make it. I thought Fallen Leaves would get in [the Best International Feature category], if I’m honest. And the one movie that I was really rooting for was The Taste of Things. I think Juliette Binoche was magnificent [in that] and should have been in the running for Supporting Actress.

I don’t understand the awards attention around Barbie and American Fiction—that one feels fresh but it’s really not that original. Plus, the family drama [in American Fiction]—I mean I guess it's really better than what you would expect something like this to be. I know I’m being mean about it. It was okay. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not Oscar-caliber.

I thought Maestro was really emotionally inert. It left me cold but I get why people like it, in terms of the craftsmanship. And a lot of those older voters obviously love and know [Leonard] Bernstein.

I remember 10 years ago, when people gave Anne Hathaway [so much grief for wanting an Oscar too much]. Now it’s Bradley Cooper and Maestro. Honestly, I wouldn't hold that against an actor, because, at the end of the day, the Oscars are not an arbiter of great art. It’s politics, it’s show business. I mean, in a way, I kind of root for him, because he is trying to get recognized for his work. He is fighting for his film. He cares enough about his art and the craftsmanship of the work instead of just taking paycheck projects that don't mean anything in the long run. I think people just kind of balk at the sight of someone visibly making an effort, and there’s an impulse to cut someone down.

The Film-Industry Professional Who Worked on Several Awards Campaigns This Year

You really never know. Films need oxygen to exist, and until people see them and talk about them, you really aren't sure how people are going to react. And there's a world in which people really like something but just don't feel like it's Oscar-worthy. And then other times where things you would assume are [Oscar contenders] don’t become Oscar titles. It's all chance, really, but you absolutely, 100% have to spend, campaign and do all the regular things. It doesn’t just happen.

The Color Purple [for example] is a film that, 15 years ago, would've been nominated for 100 awards, but it didn't have what people wanted this year. I guarantee you that the awards agencies and the staff and the marketing agencies and the ad budgets for that movie were just astronomical, but it didn't materialize outside of a supporting actress nomination.

The thing that's more noticeable right now is just how international voting is. I don't know what the numbers are but I think we're looking at something like 25 to 30% of people who vote are based outside of the US. That more than anything has influenced recent nominations. But in terms of approaching those younger, more diverse demographics, there really isn't a new [campaigning] system in place to approach them.

A lot of places where a lot of those voters live don't fall within the Academy rules—so there isn’t a theater with a restaurant space in the same building [to host an event]. And so you still have to rely on those older [campaign] spaces that have been in place for a long time and just hope that those people come out. But also, a lot of people watch stuff on the Academy streaming portal. So it's very possible that the best way to reach those people is through direct marketing, social ads, et cetera, as opposed to doing these events where they may just not want to leave the house.

I think word of mouth is actually, among [voters], the biggest influence, more so than online chatter. The thing you have to understand is a lot of voters are our parents' age, and aren’t necessarily plugged into the internet as much as they're plugged into their own inner circles of people that they know within the industry.

I would say social media is less influential than the predictive columns in the trades, like Hollywood Reporter, or even sites like GoldDerby, are. I know producers and actors read those.

I don’t know if people know this, but there are awards agencies [that companies hire]. They directly talk to voters. They're not pitching them on email and stuff like that. But say you host a screening, you have to pay a mailing house who then will receive a kind of Academy invite from you that they send out to voters. And then at those screenings, your agency will talk to voters and just get a sense of how they're feeling and get reactions.

They have the full list of and contact information for all the voters—which by the way, PR agencies do not have, distributors do not have. They cannot reach out directly. So those agencies are the ones who do all the communication with the voters at those screenings. Every single step has been thought through, and there's a dollar sign at every last one of them—it's nuts.

Most of the PR agencies that work on awards campaigns also work on the release campaigns. They work on films and festivals. They're film-culture ambassadors, people who are looking at the big picture, where a film exists and where it should be, and they're not only just thinking about the Oscars. But there is one in particular large streaming company whose only focus is the Oscars. And so their job, and basically the breakdown of their entire staff within the PR department, is solely awards, and that's all they do. Their internal job is to basically make it so a film is an awards contender, and that's their only focus.

I feel like this is why this company has never won best picture and why I feel like people resent them—because they're not taking into account the fact that films exist in an ecosystem, and you need to be there for every single step of the way. I think if you're only coming in for awards, it makes it just seem like your sole focus is something very juvenile as opposed to something bigger picture. The competitiveness is just for the gold star, it's not for the fact that your film is influential, that people like it, that in 20 years people will come back to it.

They've created a system where it's become harder for smaller companies to do things on a budget—you have to match what they have, which nobody can ever do. But at the same time, they're not winning. They're losing more than they're winning anything. So they've redefined the world in which we campaign, but they've also cornered themselves in such a way that voters really resent the way that they approach the Oscars and have punished them for that. And for that, I salute the voters. [Laughs] Somebody has to!

The Producer and Short-Film Oscar Winner

For the short-film category, you have to qualify in order for the Academy to even look at you. Because if you think about it, otherwise, everyone and their dog will submit to the Academy. And in order to qualify, you have to either win, or place a certain title in one of the festivals that are accredited by their standards. The reason why we qualified is because we won [at] the Student Academy Awards—which I also did not know existed.

Winning the Student Academy Awards—I think it's an inspirational thing for student filmmakers. The older Academy members are the ones who really care about it. There's interest in whoever wins the Student Academy Awards. When we got shortlisted for the Oscar, we thought that was it already. That was the best day of our entire lives.

I don't know if this is the rumor or not, but enough people have said this: They sort of only watch the first three to four minutes of the film. And then they're like, “By show of hands, who wants to keep going?”And I heard this from people that had an inside track from years before, because some of their best shots were at the very end of the film. So, this actually influenced how we edited. We made script revisions when we heard this, to make sure that it was immediately captivating and not a slow build to some grand shot. We needed the four minutes to set the pace.

We were pretty naive in the understanding that when you're nominated, that's when a whole other thing begins. Sounds stupid now, because duh. But we did not understand that you have to campaign, and you have to campaign hard. I think we just went for the “New York kids” story—we were all students.

Everybody campaigns. The people on Twitter who talk crap about Bradley Cooper for campaigning too much [this awards season]? They’re all full of shit. Whatever you can do to campaign, obviously you should, because literally everyone else will.

Every single person sitting in a seat at the Oscars has to be approved for a ticket. I was sitting next to the daughter of a colorist on a Pixar film or whatever. And this is all controlled by one woman in Hollywood, who every year becomes the most important woman in town. She only gave us two tickets. We were like, “What do we do? There’s so many of us.” So we were like, let’s send her cookies. We sent her a dozen cookies from Levain with the most impassioned letter that was like, “We are never going to experience this again. We don’t care where we sit. Please.” We got to be a crew of eight. I guess we bribed her with Levain cookies. [Laughs]

After the Oscars, we went to the afterparties. The one thing about the Vanity Fair party is, you can only get in if you were directly invited or if you win—not even if you’re nominated. So we pull up to the Vanity Fair party and they’re like, “Do you have a ticket?” So we show the actual Oscar. And they were like, “Oh, hey, the kids from New York!”

The most surreal moment was when Tom Hanks looked at us and shouted, “Hey, it's the kids from New York.” And then it was like a movie—there was a clearing [of the crowd], and we were in the middle [of the room]. And then the next thing we know, all of these people were coming up to us and congratulating us, like Quentin Tarantino. We were like, “What the fuck?” It was so crazy.

Originally Appeared on GQ