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Oscars for sale: How campaigns sully the Academy Awards

About the author

Tom Brook is a New York-based journalist who has reported on film and the movie industry for BBC News since 1985. He has presented Talking Movies on BBC World News since 1999.

(Corbis)

(Corbis)

Tom Brook tells what it is like to be wined and dined by studio publicists during Oscars season – and why it is bad for moviegoers.

Recently I was invited to lunch with Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. I also had breakfast with Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón – having shared drinks and finger food the night before with 12 Years a Slave actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and his director Steve McQueen. Sounds like some fantasy – but it did happen, for reasons that have to do with my marginal role in the Oscars race more than anything else.

I happen to be a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, an organization that holds the Critics’ Choice Awards, a televised ceremony, in January. The trophies handed out that night get widely reported and raise the profile – and consequently the prospects – of individuals and films seeking Oscar glory. Hence all the wining and dining on the part of the studios to win our votes.

Courting members of the press and critics who vote in pre-Oscar contests has long been standard practice because studios know that winning Academy Awards can bring big financial rewards. A film which collects Oscar trophies, or even just nominations, can expect a healthy bump in box office revenues. Of course, an Academy Award is also sought because of the prestige it brings.

But the pursuit of winning Oscars has now become so intense, at times frantic, that it has reduced all the participants who are part of this annual frenzy – from journalists like me to big name stars – to pawns in a rather strange game.

When I arrived at the party Fox Searchlight was hosting for its Oscar hopefuls a friendly publicist asked if I’d had a chance to say “hello” to Chiwetel making it sound as if he was an old friend.

I don’t really know the British actor who excels with his performance in 12 Years a Slave,  although I have interviewed him a couple of times. So I joined a small posse of celebrity-hungry journalists surrounding Ejiofor to await my turn. Typical cocktail party chitchat was going on – nothing deep. Soon he was being used as a prop, being asked to pose for a photograph with a columnist from a local New York paper. I asked him what he made of the event. He told me he enjoyed it, that he liked meeting different people and discussing his role. I found that hard to believe – but he was the perfect gentleman.

Just as I was moving away he mentioned how much he’d enjoyed our conversation at the Toronto Film Festival where I’d interviewed him. A flattering moment. This fleeting encounter raises a question: will this pleasant interchange affect whether or not I might vote for him? My response: I was going to anyway but the fact that he was nice to me certainly didn’t hurt.

No awards for honesty

What’s great about choreographed studio promotional events is when participants go off script, because the reality is much more fascinating.  At the Fox Searchlight party this happened with Steve McQueen – who wasn’t out to charm.

He got irritated by an onlooker who seemed to regard him as some kind of cardboard cutout she could stand next to for a nice photo. When I went up to him I couldn’t quite understand his concern, but he seemed a bit put out because he did not like the fact that I had used the word brutal in one of my BBC News reports to describe 12 Years a Slave.

To his credit he can be unusually candid. He doesn’t give smooth, on-message replies. Many journalists don’t find him easy. He often challenges what he perceives as incorrect assumptions in their questions.

That night he also had by all accounts a difficult encounter with veteran New York film critic Armond White who can be a bit of a contrarian. According to White the director was rude and, in his view, was trying to pick an argument with him because of his negative review of 12 Years a Slave.

“A more experienced filmmaker understands what the event was about – and it is not about arguing with a journalist,” White told me later.

But listening to White you get the impression that he is incorruptible and takes a very focused and principled approach to voting. Any personal interactions with filmmakers or stars which result from wining and dining aren’t a factor in his decision making.  “I’m always voting as a critic,” he says. “It’s up to individual critics to maintain integrity.”

Quid pro quo

But not all critics are immune to the studios’ overtures. Scott Feinberg, awards analyst for the Hollywood Reporter, believes the studios expect a payoff for bringing the press into contact with their filmmakers and stars. “At the very least what they’re banking on is that by giving a journalist some face time they are perhaps less inclined to write something negative about them because there’s the perception that there might actually be some sort of relationship now.”

The breakfast with Cuarón was held the following day at a New York hotel. It was perhaps the most pleasant of the three events. We all sat at different tables and Cuarón and his screenwriting son Jonas circulated among us. It was relaxed and the conversation was warm and intelligent. The lunch with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman wasn’t as satisfying. Jackman, sadly, was a no-show, reportedly because he had recently undergone treatment for skin cancer. And I had to leave early so I didn’t get to talk to Gyllenhaal.

But having three meet-the-Oscar-hopefuls events within one week is unusual. In one sense it’s a good sign. It reflects the strength of this year’s crop of Oscar best picture candidates. There are a lot of films that stand a very good chance of making it into the best picture list but there are only ten slots. Tim Gray, Variety’s awards editor, says, “I think the level of frenzy is pretty high. It’s because it’s such a competitive year.”

The Oscars hasn’t always animated such a broad swath of the film community. Many think movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is responsible for the way the Oscars game is now played because he has pumped so much money into Oscars campaigning – and won so many trophies for his pictures.

“Harvey Weinstein changed the game of the movie awards,” says Armond White. “He revolutionised the way the industry promotes its films for awards - and he revolutionised media coverage of the awards season. He changed it totally by his aggressive and effective campaigning.”

Win at all costs

My recent bout of ‘face time’ with Oscar wannabes has made me reflect on how much the Academy Awards race now dictates the lives of critics, journalists, stars, filmmakers and publicists. It never ends. The campaign goes on year-round. It is more than thirty-five years ago that the phrase ‘the permanent campaign’ emerged to describe how in the US campaigning had become the modus operandi of government. That has now happened with the Oscars.

Films are released at times during the year that will optimise their Oscar chances. Movies are selected for international film festivals on the basis of whether or not the timing will enhance their chances of collecting trophies. Also, stars will take time off to devote two months of the year to be in Los Angeles and New York to engage in publicity events to heighten their profile in an effort to sway Oscar voters.

There is a downside to this. There are lots of strong candidates – both actors and films – that just don’t stand a chance of making it on to the red carpet at the Oscars because they don’t have the big promotional budgets to support them.

There’s also another more subtle cost to living in a world of endless campaigning: authentic speech and interaction are eroded. We all suffer as a result.

I had a good time at last week’s events but few people at these parties are being their authentic selves. The stars aren’t saying how irritating or awkward it must be as they are fawned upon and forced to pose. The journalists and critics don’t always honestly reveal what they’re making of it all. That’s why it was refreshing to see Steve McQueen making it so obvious that he wasn’t really enjoying himself. So my vote goes to him for that – but more because he has made a truly great film.

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