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All is fair in PR and Oscars

By Felicia Empey on March 18, 2024

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The Shakespeare In Love cast with their Oscars. Harry Weinstein's face is covered.

A brief history of Oscar campaigning and how Hollywood tactics could work for you.

If awards are a sport, then the Oscars are my Superbowl. From a very early age, I have enjoyed Oscar night—the pageantry, the performances, and the “I can’t believe it ” moments all made for great entertainment. 

As I grew older and more savvy about the entertainment industry and the PR machine that drives in the background, it became less about “who wore what” and “who won what” and more about observing the tactics and the hits and misses made on the part of the studios, producers and behind-the-scenes people to make Hollywood dreams come true. In my opinion, the actual show is everything that happens BEFORE the awards night. 

The history of Oscar campaigning is as old as the Academy Awards, which were first held in 1929. Over the decades, the nature and intensity of these campaigns have evolved, reflecting changes in the film industry, media, and society. Critics argue that aggressive Oscar campaigning can undermine fair competition by prioritizing financial resources and marketing strategies over artistic merit, and I agree. 

A meme featuring Alexis Rose from Schitt's Creek asking her mother, Moira, what her favourite season. Moira responds with "Awards."

Early Years

In the early years of the Oscars, studios used their considerable influence to sway votes for their contracted talent and productions. The system was less formalized, but even then, dinners, ads, and personal appeals were typical. Louis B. Mayer, one of MGM’s founders and an instrumental figure in establishing the Academy, was known for his ability to campaign effectively within the industry. 

For example, look at this “Class Photo” posted by the official “Academy” Facebook page for MGM’s Silver Anniversary Lunch: “All the stars in the galaxy are on display.”

The class photo for an early Oscars event.

The 1950s to the 1970s: The Rise of Independent Campaigners

As the studio system declined, independent publicists and campaigners emerged, professionalizing and intensifying Oscar campaigns. These individuals and firms specialized in creating buzz and visibility for films and stars, employing strategies like ads in trade publications and organizing screenings for Academy members.

This was the clash between old Hollywood and new Hollywood (who incidentally are now the old Hollywood today). 

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The 1980s and 1990s: The Weinstein Era

The tactics employed by Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Films in the 1980s and 1990s marked a significant escalation in Oscar campaigning. Miramax’s aggressive campaigns for films like Shakespeare in Love (1998), which famously won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, demonstrated the power of relentless promotion, strategic advertising, and personal lobbying of Academy voters. This period saw Oscar campaigns becoming more sophisticated and more manipulative, with hefty budgets devoted to securing nominations and wins.

The Shakespeare In Love cast with their Oscars. Harry Weinstein's face is covered.

2000s to Present: Escalating Costs and Digital Campaigning

The strategies pioneered by Miramax became the industry standard, leading to an arms race in Oscar campaigning. The costs associated with campaigning have skyrocketed, with studios and independent campaigners spending millions on ads, screenings, and promotional events. The rise of social media and digital platforms has added new dimensions to campaigning, allowing for more direct engagement with voters and the public.

Have you wondered if you’re losing it if an actor repeats themselves repeatedly whenever you see a clip of them? You’re not alone. That repetition is your first clue that “the machine” for Oscar campaigning is chugging away. 

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Concerns Over Fairness

I am a fan of fair competition, and I am not alone in thinking that the intense focus on campaigning undermines the Oscars’ premise of awarding excellence in filmmaking based on artistic and technical merit. Key concerns include:

  • Financial Disparity: Films with significant financial backing can afford extensive campaigns, potentially overshadowing equally deserving works with smaller budgets.
  • Focus on Marketing Over Merit: There’s concern that the Oscars are becoming more concerned about which films can run the most effective marketing campaigns rather than which are the best in their category.
  • Voter Influence: The personal lobbying and networking aspects of campaigning might lead to nominations and awards being influenced more by industry connections and less by the quality of the work.
  • Exclusion of Smaller Films: Independent and international films, which might lack the resources for a high-profile campaign, could be disadvantaged, regardless of their artistic merits.

In response to these concerns, the Academy has implemented rules to regulate campaigning and limit direct contact with voters. However, the effectiveness of these regulations is debatable, as studios and campaigners continuously find new ways to promote their films within the guidelines. For example, this year, I noticed a lot of movies being released on streaming platforms before the Oscars. I thought about smaller films not having the money to either have their own streaming service (Netflix, Disney+, Paramount+, etc.) to showcase their nominated movie or the money to pay to be showcased on a streaming platform. The debate over Oscar campaigning reflects broader concerns about equity, access, and recognition in the film industry. It highlights the tension between the Oscars as a celebration of artistic achievement and their role as a high-stakes competition influenced by marketing and public relations.

Now that aside, there are some Oscar-style campaigning techniques for broader PR strategies that we can use to elevate and promote some of those forgotten voices. The key is to adopt the principles of visibility, narrative shaping, networking, and strategic timing that are hallmarks of successful Oscar campaigns. 

Create Visibility and Buzz

  • Leverage Social Media: Use social media platforms to create buzz around your project. Engage with your audience through regular updates, behind-the-scenes content, and interactive posts.
  • Media Coverage: Secure coverage in traditional and digital media. Press releases, exclusive stories, and features in relevant publications can increase your project’s visibility.
  • Influencer Partnerships: Partner with influencers or industry insiders who can talk about your project to their followers, adding credibility and broader reach.

Shape Your Narrative

  • Craft Compelling Stories: Develop a strong, compelling narrative around your project. This could involve the journey of its creation, the challenges overcome, its societal impact, or the unique elements that set it apart.
  • Emphasize Uniqueness: Highlight what makes your project unique and why it deserves attention. Focus on innovation, artistic merit, or the impact on its audience or community.

Networking 

  • Industry Events: Attend events, festivals, and conferences to network with potential supporters and influencers. Personal relationships can significantly boost your campaign’s effectiveness.
  • Private Screenings and Events: Organize private screenings or showcases for your project to key stakeholders, media, and influencers, creating an exclusive experience that can generate word-of-mouth.

Strategic Timing

  • Launch Timing: Align the launch of your PR campaign with relevant cultural moments, events, or times when your target audience is most receptive.
  • Maintain Momentum: Plan your campaign in phases to keep the momentum going. This could involve a series of announcements, content releases, or events that keep your audience engaged over time.

For Your Consideration-Style Promotions

  • Direct Appeals: Use direct appeals to your target audience that clearly communicate why your project deserves their attention or support. This can be through advertising, targeted emails, or social media campaigns.
  • Awards and Recognitions: Highlight any awards, nominations, or recognitions your project has received to build credibility and prestige.

Addressing Controversies

  • Crisis Management: Have a plan to manage any negative press or controversies that may arise. Quick, transparent, and strategic responses can mitigate potential damage to your project’s reputation.

Leverage Testimonials and Endorsements

  • Testimonials: Collect and showcase testimonials from individuals engaged with your project. Positive reviews and endorsements can influence perceptions and decisions.

Utilize Analytics and Feedback

  • Measure Impact: Use analytics tools to measure the impact of your PR campaign. Track engagement, coverage, and sentiment to understand what’s working and adjust your strategy accordingly.

Community Engagement

  • Engage Your Community: Build and engage with a community around your project. Interactive events, Q&A sessions, and active social media engagement can foster a loyal following.

Adapting Oscar-style campaigning techniques to your PR strategy involves a blend of creativity, strategic planning, and execution. By tailoring these approaches to fit your project’s specific goals and context, you’ll ensure your campaign resonates with your target audience and achieves your desired outcomes; maybe you’ll even make a star.

For further reading about this topic, I highly recommend Michael Schulman’s Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears

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