The volume of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters who’ve admitted they’ve barely seen any films so close to ballot opening on December 27 is surprising. One Oscar-winning member of the actors branch, who has been working nonstop, actually revealed she has seen nothing except her own film. This is after studios have spent millions of dollars sending out DVD screeners, conducting special screenings and Q&As, and booking their contenders on every talk show and morning show in existence, all in an effort to get the attention of those 6,028 members who must select their nominees by January 8. One Oscar-nominated writer-director has only seen Nebraska and a couple of other films but had recently broken up with his girlfriend and didn’t want to watch his screeners alone. “My son did tell me 12 Years A Slave was the best movie he saw all year, so I will try to see that one,” he says. To be fair, I also spoke to numerous Academy members who were trying to keep up with the films, but—as one busy voter confessed— didn’t want to rely solely on screeners, which makes it all the more difficult to find time to see everything. “I really don’t want to watch these things on my television set. I want to go to a theater,” the voter says.
There are plenty of Academy members who are trying to see as much as they can, but how exactly do campaigners reach this elusive voter, who has far less time on their hands and way too many movies to watch? This is where critics—often a nemesis of many of these Academy members—can suddenly come in handy. If the ever-growing barrage of awards-giving critics groups across the country appears to reach a consensus, it can be a huge boost to a film hoping to get in the Academy conversation.
“This movie lives or dies with critics and awards. They are extremely important to a smaller film like this,” Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley told me after 12 Years A Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. Since then, the acclaimed film has won a majority of year-end critics awards, even though early in the process it failed to pick up the top prize from some of the more prominent groups, including the Los Angeles and New York film critics as well as the National Board of Review. Pundits immediately warned the film could be in trouble Oscar-wise because it didn’t sweep everything in sight. 12 Years did rebound thanks to making the AFI Awards list as well as culling impressive nominations from the Golden Globes, SAG Awards and Broadcast Film Critics Association Critics Choice Movie Awards. Just like that, it was back at the top of the contender heap. The sheer volume of honors it can boast about in TV, newspaper and trade ads makes it hard for even the most reticent of Oscar voters to ignore. American Hustle, Her, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis and Blue Jasmine are the other films making the most noise among the pre-Oscar awards pack.
The key is to get voters to heed the heat, and these precursor groups can definitely play a part. However, it doesn’t mean the Academy will fall right in line. In 2010, The Social Network pulled off a clean sweep of the precursors right through the Golden Globes, but saw its momentum stop when it got to the guild awards and, eventually, to the Academy, which gave best picture to The King’s Speech.
Many of the more prominent precursor awards have their own red carpet and TV deals that help expose contenders. Of course, the Golden Globes lead that pack with a high-rated broadcast on NBC (January 12), but there’s also the SAG Awards on TNT/TBS (January 18) and the CCMAs on The CW (January 16). Although all of these shows will happen after the Oscar nomination ballots are in, they can be enormously influential in Phase 2, creating a wave of wins for contenders to take right through to Oscar night several weeks later.
Last year, Ben Affleck was famously snubbed by Oscar, failing to get an expected directing nom. He was obviously depressed, but thanks to the CCMAs, which were held later that same day, he came roaring back when he won the group’s best director prize along with best picture for Argo. He began his acceptance speech saying, “I’d like to thank the Academy…” It’s almost as if the snub somehow helped as he gained attention and continued to triumph at multiple pre-Oscar events, ultimately taking the best picture Oscar—not a bad consolation prize.
The CCMAs, hoping lightning will strike twice (ratings on The CW were strong), is once again holding its awards show the same day as the Oscar nominations. BFCA president Joey Berlin even boasts of the group’s attempts to influence Oscar voters. “We can’t wait for January 16, when the Academy Award nominations will be announced in the morning,” he says. “So many of their honorees will then make their first public appearance as Oscar nominees on our red carpet.”
The importance of getting nominations and being seen holding trophies at these precursor awards cannot be underestimated. “It’s very important, and they help set the pace for the film during the season,” says Karen Fried, an awards consultant for Focus Features who’s campaigning for Dallas Buyers Club, which has been picking up notice for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. “The awards attention Dallas Buyers Club has been receiving should have a strong impact on the Academy for what is essentially a smaller film than many of the other contenders. They will have an impact because we are being noticed, and that means more voters will be inclined to see the movie.”
Not every Academy member is impressed by all the noise created in the run-up to the Oscars. In fact, one prominent member of the directors branch, Paul Schrader, is fed up with all of it and went on a rant on his Facebook page that he later expanded on IndieWire. “I find this escalating media chatter regarding film-society awards, Oscar handicapping and promotional gimmicks increasingly tiresome,” he wrote. “I stopped voting for DGA and WGA awards last year, and for the first time since 1976, when I was privileged to be accepted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, I may leave my Oscar ballot unopened. Why? Every year I’ve exercised my deeply appreciated right to vote for the annual Oscar awards. But now I am sickened by the shameless monied huckstering of the vote-procuring process.”
Whether Schrader’s opinion is widely shared in the Academy is questionable, but as long as the studios and distributors continue to elevate the importance of the proliferating precursor awards business, it will only increase the number of Oscar whisperers out there trying to cut their own slice of awards season pie.