Hollywood awards season has long been a favorite tradition of the Los Angeles media. Years ago, entertainment insiders looking for votes for their latest project quietly made their pitches to the members of the Academy.
It used to be passé to brag too much or lobby too often. So instead, executives and publicists would use their influence to muster up a timely media profile for their favorite star, announce a large philanthropic donation to a high-profile charity or diligently work the holiday party circuit conveniently occurring right before nominations are announced.
But times have changed since those subtle days of quiet lobbying. Hollywood award campaigns have been on the same trajectory as government elections in how much they have evolved.
This year, studio heads and producers are using tactics from political campaigns like never before.
The Oscar season began when nomination ballots were mailed in December. Nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 16, but the campaigns have already started.
After all, Hollywood award marketing is big business. The New York Times reports awards campaigns cost as much as $100,000. And while that pales in comparison to the billions spent to re-elect President Obama in 2012 or the millions of dollars spent to win a seat in Congress today, hundreds of campaigns for dozens of awards are delivering tens of millions of dollars to Los Angeles businesses. And unlike a presidential campaign every four years, the Hollywood political operations happen every year.
Hollywood executives are looking to Washington campaign experts for strategies on winning. It’s not a coincidence that Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president in 2016, attended a Los Angeles awards ceremony to not only raise campaign funds but to lend her star power to current Hollywood award candidates.
Many of the political world’s campaign tactics are now standard operating procedures for entertainment studios and producers:
- Constituent services: Just like an election year for politicians, stars suddenly become accessible to the media and the public around the first of every year. Celebrities are traveling, doing media interviews, walking the red carpet, attending junkets, shaking hands and posing for pictures all at the same time.
- Joe the Actor: From Sandra Bullock sharing her experience Googling herself to Meryl Streep’s boxing moves, the campaigns are putting personality front and center. The so-called "Beer Test" – a look at which political candidates are more like regular Joes – is now transitioning to Hollywood, with stars being coached to open up with personal stories, tweet daily mundane activities and act like their fans.
- Opposition Research: There’s nothing new about waging war on your opponents but the widely-reported attack on Lana Del Ray’s Oscar eligibility is a nod to the birther campaign that has hounded President Obama. It’s been alleged that Academy members are receiving anonymous envelopes with fake news stories claiming Del Ray’s song for "The Great Gatsby," "Young and Beautiful," has been deemed ineligible for the award. It’s the first time in 10 years that smear campaigns have been launched against a song.
- Battlegrounds: Much was made of the Obama campaign’s successful Get Out the Vote campaign, particularly compared to Romney’s infamous ORCA project, in winning the so-called battleground states. As political primaries approach, national media attention focuses on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Last week’s Palm Springs International Film Festival and this week’s Sundance Film Festival are Hollywood’s Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary.
If you can come out of the desert with momentum and pick up speed from the slopes of Park City then you are sure to be noticed by the Academy.
Hollywood politicos can still learn from Washington’s campaigns, too. Here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t Peak too Early: Hollywood campaigns are short and quick. Publicists need to figure out how best to maximize a star’s exposure without losing credibility. Suddenly seeing a star everywhere signals desperation and reminds us we haven’t seen them all year long.
Political campaigns are more thoughtful and lengthier and therefore are more realistic.
Sometimes running a more nuanced yet longer campaign builds deeper support…and a stronger shot at next year’s awards season.
- Top of the Ticket: Many people vote a straight party line from the president down to city council. Hollywood publicists need to think long and hard about who they are putting forward to lead their awards season campaigns.
Woody Allen’s presence may ruin an accomplished actor’s chance of taking home an award as easily as Martin Scorsese may help an unknown actress win.
Guilt by association is part of campaigning.
- Third-Party Endorsements: While some entertainment executives understand the power of having someone else speak for you, most Hollywood publicists don’t. Having a credible voice in the conservative community or in military circles talk glowingly about your candidate gets you more attention and wider support than pitching yourself.
Election Day for Hollywood is March 2.Who is your candidate?