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How to win an Oscar

The campaign trail for the Academy Awards is expensive, exhausting, and not really about the movie.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Campaigning for an Oscar is a lot like campaigning for public office, with a weird twist: In the movie business, you’re supposed to pretend you’re chill about the whole thing — not here to win, just here for the artistic conversations and interesting people. You can’t look like you’re asking for votes. (In fact, that’s strictly disallowed by the Academy.) You’ve got to look like you’re “celebrating cinema,” in a pure and disinterested way.

(Remember in Hamilton, when Aaron Burr starts openly campaigning for vice president in the full public eye, asking for votes and shaking hands and flirting with women, and everyone finds it a bit gauche? Hollywood fancies itself still in its pre-Burr stage.)

But the ostensible “disinterest” is total hogwash. You need only follow the Oscars chatter in trade publications to know that for the past 20 years or so, Hollywood studios and production companies have hired strategists and consultants to run Oscar campaigns, spending millions of dollars to catch the attention of the right voters who could help push their films to victory.

In 2016, Variety estimated that studios spend anywhere from $3 million to upward of $10 million to lobby Oscar voters; according to a 2017 New Yorker story about modern Oscar campaigns, that figure can run as high as $15 million. Consultants on the campaigns command tens of thousands of dollars for their services, with more in bonuses if their film wins.

Hollywood’s campaigns for Oscars cost less than the hundreds of millions that go into presidential campaigns, but they’re just as much about money and the influence it can indirectly buy, through events and endorsements and advertising. (Actress Susan Sarandon — speaking, it seems, not just for herself — has called for “campaign finance reform.”)

Studios pick their candidates based on “electability” and pour money into them, targeting Oscar voters with ads, mailers, screeners, events, and a lot more. (As a film critic who also reports on the industry, I am part of the audience for these campaigns, even though I’m not an Oscar voter; I receive some of the mailers and event invitations, which fill my email inbox and my real mailbox for a few months at the end of every year.)

Electability relies on a number of factors, from whether the movie’s subject matter is likely to appeal to the Academy to the stars’ charisma both onscreen and off. But its most important element — and what every piece of an Oscar campaign is devoted to constructing — is the narrative of Oscar-worthiness around a film.

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Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water won Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars, poses with the ceremony’s host, Jimmy Kimmel.
Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

A good narrative matters just as much as (and sometimes more than) the film itself in determining who ends up with gold statues on Oscar night. It’s possible to build a narrative around a less-than-ideal candidate that compensates for what they lack in appeal. If you can spend enough money on a good campaign and make a voting body think their votes for your candidate mean something, something that’s important to them, then you’ve done most of the work.

But that’s not the image the Oscars want to project. They’re supposed to be a glittery, glamorous evening of celebrating an art form, the king of all awards shows, something magical, something worth aspiring to. They’re supposed to be recognizing the best movie, the best performances, the best cinematography, the best costume design — not the best Oscar campaign.

And yet the reality is different. All Oscar campaigns take some calculated steps on the path to winning, just like presidential candidates do — like aligning the candidate with a viable archetype, reflecting values that appeal to voters, participating in campaign events, racking up good endorsements, and maybe playing a little dirty too.

Every piece of a successful Oscar campaign is focused on crafting the belief in voters’ minds that this movie not only can win, but should. That’s what makes for an “Oscar movie.” And running the campaign often starts with everything but the movie itself.

A good Oscar campaign begins with getting the movie’s story straight

You’ve made a film, the reviews have been good, people like the movie, and now the studio wants to run it for the Oscars. What do you do first?

Figure out a compelling narrative around the film, and then get people to buy into it.

“This is why we made it — not just how we made it, but why we made it. These are the people that made it. You’re trying to give the movie a human face,” producer Jordan Horowitz explained to me.

Horowitz is no stranger to Oscar campaign strategies. He produced the acclaimed 2016 film La La Land and briefly became a sensation after the infamous onstage mix-up at the 2017 Oscars, during which he gracefully ceded his Best Picture acceptance speech to Moonlight’s producers after realizing his film had been announced erroneously as the winner. And years before that, the first film he produced, 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

“Crafting that narrative that both is the movie and beyond the movie is a huge part of the conversation,” he continued. “How you market the film, who goes to see the film, how they in turn talk about it. All of that feeds into the narrative of the movie — especially during awards season.”

Getting a film’s narrative right may be the single most important thing that any Oscar campaign can do. The goal is to identify how a movie fits into an archetype that appeals to potential voters, then capture those voters’ hearts, minds, and imaginations to earn their support.

Which is true of movies, and true of politicians. (After all, as the quip goes, Washington is just Hollywood for ugly people.)

“One of the main advantages of Barack Obama, for example, was that he never had to articulate why he was the candidate of change,” Laura Olin, who oversaw Obama’s digital strategy during his 2012 reelection campaign, told me. “You could just look at him and be like, ‘Oh, that guy’s different.’ His name is different. The way he looks is different. He’s a different race from every other president we’ve ever had. So much of the power of his story and his values were rooted in where he came from.”

Some movies have narratives baked right into their DNA, just like Obama did; they came out of nowhere (think of a sleeper hit like this year’s A Quiet Place, or a low-budget film like Moonlight), they’re representative of the future (think Black Panther or Avatar), or they’re “the story we need right now” (often the pitch for movies like 2006 Best Picture winner Crash or this year’s Best Picture-nominated Green Book).

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Producers Cathy Schulman and Paul Haggis accept the Best Picture Award at the 2006 Oscars for Crash.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Others require a bit of careful strategizing, to develop a narrative that’s appealing to voters and makes the movie stand out in a crowd. But the important thing is to think in terms of “archetypes,” Jim Margolis told me. Margolis is a political consultant with a long history as an adviser to Democratic presidential campaigns. Most recently, he served as a senior media adviser for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign; before that, he worked on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns. He’s also worked with clients in the entertainment industry.

Margolis pointed to both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Obama as examples of established archetypes. In 2016, Sanders was “the Little Engine That Could, who surprised everyone by making a race out of it, and carrying on to the end, even when it looked improbable or impossible,” Margolis explained. During Obama’s primary run against Hillary Clinton in 2008, Sanders had the advantage of running against the “inevitable candidate,” thus positioning himself as the underdog, the unlikely candidate of change.

“I think, for successful [political] candidates,” Margolis continued, “there is a dimension that is not all about policy. It is much more about how people relate to and react to that person as an individual — to what they see in them.”

People want to vote for the politicians they find motivating and inspiring, and that desire prevails when it comes to movies, too. Voters respond to films whose surrounding narratives resonate with them. That’s why the archetype a movie fits matters in the movie’s Oscar campaign.

You can detect Hollywood’s favorite archetypes in the narratives that develop around movies as awards season approaches. They come up in interviews, in promotional materials distributed to the press, in chatter about specific films.

One of the most loved Hollywood archetypes is that of the underdog: the movie that almost didn’t get made, the script or story that spent years struggling to find a filmmaker or studio executive who would put their shoulder behind the project and see it through. And, as a bonus, the underdog narrative works whether the finished film turns out to be acclaimed but low in earnings or a huge box office hit.

Danai Gurira and Lupita N’yongo in Black Panther.
Danai Gurira and Lupita N’yongo in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios

Consider Black Panther, which has the rare distinction of being both 2018’s top-grossing film and a Best Picture nominee. (It’s also a superhero movie, which has historically been the death knell for a movie’s Oscar chances outside of the technical categories; Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the anomalous exception, was nominated for 10 Oscars and won two, but notably was not nominated for Best Picture.)

But Black Panther didn’t have an easy path to this point. Wesley Snipes wanted to make a Black Panther movie in 1992, but it never happened (though the idea laid the foundation for Blade). The character’s story was identified way back in 2005 as one of the original stories in development for Marvel Studios, which was still new at the time. (Marvel’s first major release, Iron Man, wouldn’t come out until 2008.)

Eight years later, in October 2014, Black Panther was finally announced to be on Marvel’s slate for late 2017, a date later pushed into the following year. The road to its actual premiere was littered with casting announcements and production changes. And even when it finally came out, it had to contend with the outdated idea that “black films don’t travel.” Now it’s the first superhero film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. All those factors could make even the year’s most successful film seem like an underdog at the Oscars.

Another archetype is the celebration of the “power of art,” often the art of cinema. (Think of movies like Argo, La La Land, and The Artist.) In 2019, that’s Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born.

The film is almost ouroboric in its archetype, given that its story — which has been remade either three or four times, depending on whether you count the 1932 film What Price Hollywood? as part of the lineage that continues with versions of A Star Is Born made in 1937, 1954, and 1976 — is about show business. Early versions were about Hollywood itself, and while the 2018 version and the 1976 version focused on the music industry, the story about becoming a star and then seeing that star fall is especially potent for people who work in either field.

And the narrative that’s built up around A Star Is Born reflects that. Cooper prepared for the role by learning to sing, play guitar, and lower his voice — the kind of labor that Academy members who’ve had to do similar things for a role find especially attractive. A similar arc is evident in the casting of Lady Gaga, already a megastar, yet who has managed to position herself as an ingenue (in the manner of her character) and spoken at length about the experience of auditioning for the film, especially going makeup-free. She’s spent the entire awards season talking about how the movie changed her, and how she will never be the same.

The FYC campaign for A Star Is Born included buying an ad on the front cover of Variety.
The FYC campaign for A Star Is Born included buying an ad on the front cover of Variety.

Meanwhile, the movie’s final ad push, which showed up in newspapers and on TV the weekend before the Oscars, feeds into the same narrative, with a tagline reading “There are movies we admire. But there is just one we feel.”

That Star is Born tagline seems like a pointed dig at its competitor Roma, which fits into an archetype that might best be described as the “masterpiece,” or perhaps the “auteurist” movie, an artistic achievement and personal passion project from an already decorated director — in this case, Alfonso Cuarón, who won Best Director for Gravity in 2014 but has yet to have one of his films win Best Picture.

Roma premiered to widespread critical acclaim at the Venice and then Toronto film festivals in the fall, and picked up Best Picture awards from major critics’ groups. Since the film’s bona fides as a masterfully crafted work are clear, Cuarón has worked hard to emphasize that it is not just personal, but autobiographical.

Roma is also the first Best Picture contender for Netflix, which has been pouring money into its campaign for the film — but given the platform’s reputation as an outsider that’s trying to “disrupt” the film industry, that fact could work against its chances with some members of the Academy who would see a Netflix win as less of an achievement and more of a harbinger of the death of cinema. So those constructing the narrative around Roma have tried to avoid letting the narrative be about Netflix, an effort that includes Cuarón giving a strong response to a journalist who asked about the streaming company after the Golden Globes.

Netflix ‘Roma’ Premiere
Alfonso Cuaron, Yalitza Aparicio, and Marina de Tavira at the premiere of Roma in Hollywood in December 2018.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Netflix

Instead, Roma’s Oscar campaign has focused on how personal the film is for Cuarón, and how that shaped even the hiring of its crew. One of the film’s producers, Gabriela Rodriguez (who will, if Roma wins Best Picture, become the first Latina to win in the category), emphasized to me aspects beyond the intricacy of Cuarón’s vision. She noted how determined he was to pay respect to Libo, the woman on whom Roma’s main character Cleo is based, who raised Cuarón and his siblings.

“Alfonso, when we crewed up the entire team, he was adamant: ‘I don’t want to hire just a crew because they’re established or because they’re well-known or anything. I want a crew of people around me that are willing to embrace this process that’s atypical, that is personal, that we’re going to do this different ways,’” Rodriguez told me.

Getting your archetype right matters, because it can motivate and inspire voters. But that’s only half of what makes a good “story” around an Oscar hopeful.

Archetypes are only half the “story.” The other half: values.

Voters are inspired by origin stories, but they’re also interested in what their vote says about them. In other words, your movie’s story is about not just its archetype but the values it projects. You’ve also got to figure out how to convince voters that the film matters, and why.

The Oscars’ Best Picture category can have up to 10 nominees — there are eight in 2019 — and differentiating them from each other isn’t as simple as presenting a binary choice. It’s not as if movies “disagree” with each other like candidates do.

“It’s more like, this is why this movie makes the most sense for the world we’re in right now, for the industry as it is. This is why it’s important to honor it. Here’s the statement you’re making by lifting this particular picture up,’” Horowitz said.

Academy voters have the sense that the films, performances, and filmmaking they choose to reward are a reflection of the industry’s values, which is particularly important in 2019, with #OscarsSoWhite barely in the rearview mirror and #MeToo very much ongoing. An industry trying to present itself as becoming progressively more inclusive and open-minded — and maybe more inclusive and open-minded than America at large — is more likely to seriously consider some films that might have been pushed to the side in the past.

That’s why, for instance, Black Panther stars Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan returned to the press circuit long after their film left theaters, to talk about the impact of their film a year after it came out. Reminding voters that Black Panther has had a tangible effect on audiences and on the film industry was important for keeping it at the front of Oscar voters’ minds as they began choosing winners.

And Black Panther is a great example of a film that hits more than one sweet spot for voters. It’s not just a mega-hit blockbuster with a story that projects specific ideas about blackness; it’s also a film in which audiences and Academy members might see a representation of themselves onscreen. It feels, to many, like a “transformational” film, one that represents the future of Hollywood.

Contrast the transformational feeling of Black Panther with A Star Is Born, a film that is beloved by many but doesn’t do anything that voters haven’t seen before — which could be good or bad, depending on whether a voter approves of the direction Hollywood is currently headed in.

Or consider Green Book, which feels like the kind of movie about racism Hollywood used to make in the 1990s, one that suggests that we could work out our problems if only we would talk to one another. Many of the people who made those movies are still likely voting on the Oscars.

“Whatever’s in the zeitgeist, year to year — there are movies that would be an awards movie one year that wouldn’t be an awards movie another year,” Horowitz told me. “So, much like a political campaign, it’s about trying to read the tea leaves.”

Sometimes, movies get pushed into the binary choice political framework, even if they don’t have clear political messages. In 2017, when Moonlight and La La Land emerged as frontrunners for Best Picture, they were promptly pitted against each other not just as films, but as avatars for politics in an America roiling after the 2016 election. La La Land, painted by its detractors as whitewashing pablum, was supposed to represent Donald Trump in this schematic; Moonlight, on the other side, was less Hillary Clinton than the legacy of Obama.

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Jordan Horowitz, producer of La La Land, hands over the Best Picture award to Moonlight writer and director Barry Jenkins at the 2017 Oscars.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Horowitz chuckled when I asked him about it. “Well, it just got very reductive,” he said, adding:

The 2016 election had just happened, and there was a lot of raw emotion. People ascribed a lot of stuff to those two movies in particular. ... They both had to carry a lot of water for a lot of different things.

But again, that’s what happens. Same thing happens in a political campaign, right? People project their hopes and fears onto a candidate. We saw that happen with Obama. We see it happen with candidates all the time.

We’re talking about art at the end of the day, right? You can project feelings onto art, and emotion onto these pictures. You can wind up projecting those hopes and dreams and fears and all those things onto a candidate.

Even when a film doesn’t get rolled into current cultural debates — something that’s harder and harder to imagine with each passing year — a vote for it is a vote for a particular vision of Hollywood. It’s a representation of the values the voter wants to project, as well as whether they find the film relatable. And that can have a great impact on where their vote goes.

Mix the values of a film with the archetype it fits into and you have a potentially powerful voter magnet, a story that can make your movie stick in the minds of Academy members as they sit down to fill out their Oscar ballots.

But there’s a lot of time between the release of a film and someone casting their Best Picture vote — including the whole campaign season. A lot can change over that time. Running a successful Oscar campaign means knowing how to target your voters. And that is where the cinematic rubber meets the long, long road.

Crack the campaign handbook, mail some DVDs, and start shaking hands

In 2019, Boots Riley’s debut feature Sorry to Bother You didn’t earn any Oscar nominations. It’s not a natural Oscar pick — a surreal dystopian social comedy-horror — but fans were incensed, in particular over the exclusion of any of the film’s music from the Best Original Song category. (Riley is best known as the lead vocalist of the Coup, and with the group he recorded the album’s soundtrack.) So he replied on Twitter, offering a mini explainer on how things work once Oscars campaigns begin.

“[T]he largest factor as to why we didn’t get nominated is that we didn’t actually run a campaign that aimed to get a nomination for Screenplay or Song,” Riley tweeted. “We didn’t buy For Your Consideration ads in the trade magazines and we didn’t service the whole academy with screeners. Without that, its perceived that you don’t have a chance, or enough buzz.”

“Academy members dont just vote for a thing they like if they think it doesn’t have a chance. It’s like that with most voting,” he continued. “That is not to say that we would have gotten a nomination if we had [run a traditional Oscar campaign,] because at that point it becomes about which of the contenders they like the most- it’s just that not doing [a campaign] made it a self-fulfilling prophecy that we wouldn’t get nominated. So I had no actual belief that we would get nominated.”

“I just enjoy the parties, free drinks, & hanging out with really talented filmmakers that inspire me- many of them who got nominated. &the campaign that we did do- press runs, red carpet stuff- got a lot more ppl2see the movie. That’s, 4 me, the big attraction to any film award,” he concluded.

Riley’s tweets explained the first thing that any successful Oscar campaign has to do: get the movie on Academy voters’ radar as a movie that could win. And that means spending money. A typical campaign involves lots and lots of contact between studios, publicists, and the voters.

Academy members receive For Your Consideration (FYC) booklets, DVDs, copies of screenplays, and CDs of soundtracks; they field invitations to screenings and Q&As; and they are targeted by FYC ads in industry publications, on social media, and, if they live in a place like New York or Los Angeles, ads on billboards, in the subway, and atop cabs. The process usually starts in the fall, after the blitz of film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, and intensifies over the next six months leading up to the Oscars.

Part of the the FYC (For Your Consideration) ad campaign for 2019 Best Picture nominee Green Book.
Part of the the FYC (For Your Consideration) ad campaign for 2019 Best Picture nominee Green Book.
Universal Pictures

Doing those things just raises awareness of a film, and creates the notion that it has the potential to be part of the Oscar conversation, which makes people put it on their to-watch list. And, as Riley notes, not doing those things can have the opposite effect. If voters don’t think a film has a chance, they’re less likely to prioritize watching it.

Once you’ve built some buzz around your film, you have to actually get out and meet the voters — especially the ones who aren’t your personal friends. The Academy is large — though the roll isn’t published, estimates suggest it’s currently more than 8,000 members — and to get on as many voters’ radars as possible, nominees need to appeal to everyone, with a tireless ability to answer questions, shake hands, and make people love them.

Actors and directors who campaign well — that is, who find ways to make personal connections with voters — often do much better on the awards circuit. As with presidents, that means extroverts, or at least those who can project a gregarious image for months on end, are often more successful. Tom Hanks is known to be able to turn on the charm on demand; Michael Fassbender is said to be the exact opposite. Among directors, you have the effusive Guillermo del Toro on one side and the reserved Christopher Nolan on the other.

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Tom Hanks accepts the Favorite Dramatic Movie Actor award during the People’s Choice Awards in 2017.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for People’s Choice Awards

And for the most part, if you want an Oscar, you need to show up at events, answer questions from audience members after screenings, be friendly to journalists, and find a way to elicit feelings like “Oh, I love her!” when they hear your name. You may need to take selfies with fans or voters, show up to receive awards at smaller festivals attended by Academy members, and eat three meals a day at campaign events. And there are endless Q&As, in which you have to muster the energy to answer questions you’ve answered a thousand times before with cheer and kindness, lest you turn off a voter.

Some people — like Fassbender and Rooney Mara — are said to actively hate the campaign trail. That can definitely hurt your chances. But though it sometimes doesn’t matter — as Michael Schulman noted in the New Yorker, the actress Mo’Nique refused to campaign for her supporting role in Precious, and won anyhow — being gregarious and well-liked raises your profile in positive ways, and that always helps.

The bottom line is that, no matter what narrative your film is part of, you have to ensure that Academy members will see your film, connect to its story, and remember it come voting time. The more opportunities there are to do this, the better. And so during Oscar season, there are screenings with cocktails and Q&As. There are dinners. And breakfasts, and luncheons, and teas, and cocktail receptions hosted by celebrities and influencers.

Stars and Oscar hopefuls show up for meet-and-greets and make surprise appearances at screenings. They appear on podcasts and do video tours and make the rounds on late-night comedy shows, and a lot more. (Members of the press are often invited to these events, and are sometimes asked to moderate Q&As after screenings, which means I get a firsthand glimpse at how hectic the year-end event schedule can be for Academy voters.)

There are some rules about how much you can contact (or badger) an Academy member about your movie. The Academy limits the number of mailings and screening invitations a member can receive for each film. You can’t call an Academy member on the phone to promote a film or an “achievement,” such as a performance or a technical accomplishment. (That rule was developed in response to a favorite tactic employed by Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein, though descriptions of his calls characterize them less as enthusiastic promotion and more as discomfiting intimidation; sometimes they’ve been likened to “browbeating” — more on that below.)

You also can’t put out the Oscar equivalent of “attack ads” on competing films. And once the nominations are announced, typically in mid-January, you can’t invite Academy members to any event that doesn’t include a screening, so luncheons and cocktails are out.

Sometimes events are hosted by celebrities and influencers who aren’t directly connected to a film. This serves the same purpose that endorsements do in the political realm.

“I remember that Barbra Streisand hosted one of the first hosted screenings we did for La La Land in LA,” Horowitz said. “Her support for the movie meant quite a bit.”

“And that kind of thing happens throughout the season, at the beginning, the middle, and the end,” he continued. “People say, ‘Here’s a movie I love, and here’s why.’ They can help you craft the narrative.”

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Jordan Horowitz, director Damien Chazelle, and producer Fred Berger at the Patrons Gala screening of La La Land at the BFI London Film Festival in 2016.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI

Olin, the political consultant who worked on Obama’s reelection campaign, noted the need in political campaigns to locate “influential people, or people who are likely to be good messengers” to the audience you’re trying to reach. “That’s why a lot of campaigns are strategic in who they recruit to be celebrity influencers,” she said.

“Getting someone who has a big, important voice to host a screening for your movie is crucial,” Horowitz told me. Their endorsement of the movie — and, most likely, their presence at a screening — will get people in the door who may not know much about the film, but know that if Brad Pitt or Shaun King or Kenneth Lonergan or Edie Falco or Jake Gyllenhaal or Billie Jean King or Julianne Moore or Tracee Ellis Ross is hosting the screening, it’s probably worth checking out. (All of those people were named as hosts of screenings to which I was invited this fall, and I’m not even an Academy member.)

The Academy has rules around this too; in particular, once nominations are announced, Academy members are prohibited from appearing in support of films that they weren’t specifically involved with. But leading up to nominations, all bets are off, and such endorsements are among the best ways to connect with the people who will eventually propel a film to gold.

All of this means that Oscar campaigns are very expensive. Someone — the studio — has to buy the ads, pay for the screeners and screenings, mail the DVDs, rent the event spaces, order the food, give honorariums to Q&A moderators, and fly nominees all over the country. Plus, studios hire experienced consultants to run campaigns for their nominees — consultants who often are taking pages right from the most notorious Oscar campaigner in Hollywood history.

Oscar campaigns involve all this work because in 1999, Harvey Weinstein upended the industry

Oscar campaigns weren’t always quite so involved. For decades, campaigns were competitive but still more genteel affairs, and didn’t so closely resemble the more aggressive tactics (and expenditures) of modern American politics.

That all changed about 20 years ago, particularly when counterattacks on films became a common Oscar season occurrence. And the reason, believe it or not, lies in the work of one man: Harvey Weinstein.

These days, when reporters, critics, and industry insiders see an Oscar campaign employing “strong-arm” tactics and “badmouthing” films, we tend to say something like “that smells like Weinstein.”

Though Weinstein is now persona non grata in the industry, it would be difficult to overstate the effect he had on the modern shape of Oscar campaigns, beginning in the mid-1990s, when he was becoming a force to be reckoned with. He figured out how to corral screenings, mailings, and events to craft a narrative around an Oscar hopeful like nobody had before. And it worked.

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Harvey Weinstein at the 2017 Oscars.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

In 1991, just before Weinstein’s time, the New York Times reported that studios were concerned with being “persistent without being so pushy as to risk a voter backlash, and to be innovative without overlooking traditional tactics proven to work.” The article went on to note the then-new practice of sending “videocassettes” to Academy members that they could view in their own homes, so they wouldn’t have to trek out to screenings. Some Academy members told the paper about receiving a handwritten letter from Diane Ladd, who was eventually nominated for her supporting role in 1990’s Wild at Heart, or receiving invitations to parties sponsored by Leonard Nimoy.

“The backbone of any Academy Award campaign, however, continues to be the advertisements taken out in trade journals like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter,” the article said.

But in 1999, Weinstein upended the playbook for good when he ran what’s been called a “bully campaign” that resulted in Shakespeare in Love beating out the seemingly unbeatable Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. (For more on how he pulled off this win and many more after 1999, see Vulture’s extensive rundown of his tactics, which got more aggressive as time went on.)

As a result of Weinstein’s clearly effective tactics with Shakespeare in Love’s upset, other studios started spending more money and employing outside consultants, some of whom had worked closely with Weinstein. (Many of today’s most in-demand Oscar campaign consultants are Weinstein alums.)

One key tactic in the Weinstein playbook was to create “events” that would keep a movie at the forefront of a voter’s mind. Events can be any moment during a film’s Oscar campaign that sticks in voters’ memories, and they can change the course of a campaign.

So it matters if a person won at the Golden Globes, but it may matter more if their speech made a splash. It matters when, and how, they appear in news headlines. It matters because it can “change, at some level, the dynamic of the conversation that we want to have take place on the stage,” Margolis said, “or as we as voters decide on what films ‘move up.’”

It’s likely, for instance, that when Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for Fences at the Golden Globes in 2017, then honored her father and spoke about the importance of theater in America, Oscar voters fondly remembered her emotion and commitment when voting opened. Davis went on to win the Oscar for Supporting Actress, and in her acceptance speech, she called for the industry to start “exhuming and exalting” ordinary lives, as Fences playwright August Wilson did. “Winning” at the Globes prompted a memorable event — the speech — and that stuck in the minds of voters.

Events can be negative, of course. A bad or offensive speech at the Globes, or a negative story leaked to the press, could have the opposite effect. (For a political analogue, think of FBI Director James Comey’s announcement, 11 days before the 2016 election, that Hillary Clinton was still under investigation, or the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump.)

And following recent controversies surrounding the tweets of erstwhile Oscar host Kevin Hart and Green Book co-writer Nick Vallelonga, it’s somewhat inevitable studios will add “comb through past social media posts” to their campaign handbooks in the future, to stave off any bad events that could sink a film’s chances.

In the Weinstein playbook, the aim is to have good events (from pleasant interactions with and stories about filmmakers to having your stars testify before Congress or helping change old and unjust laws) for your films. But the flip side is also important: If you can provoke bad events and bad stories around your competitors’ films, well, that’s their problem, right?

That’s the drawback of the need to create a story around your film — if your film ends up tied to a bad story, it could be a big problem. If your film starts looking like it fits a bad archetype (a fate that Weinstein is suspected of bringing upon Slumdog Millionaire in 2009 by planting a story in the press that its filmmakers were exploiting their subject) or promotes bad values (because someone suggests it’s racially insensitive, for instance), your chances may be sunk.

That’s not to suggest that all criticisms of a film are plants from the campaigns of its Oscar competitors, just as not all criticism of political candidates comes as a result of stories dug up by their opponents. Sometimes a film, or a candidate, has genuinely bad ideas, has acted in an unethical way, or simply deserves the criticism.

2019 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony - Inside
Green Book co-writers Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga attend the 2019 Writers Guild Awards.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for WGA

But the tactic is so appealing and effective that it seems plausible to suggest that any story or criticism that surfaces could be campaign tricks (rather than, for instance, journalism). For example, in January, following Green Book’s Golden Globes win, the film found itself at the center of two controversies on the same day. One was because old stories surfaced about the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, exposing himself to women as a joke, something that likely even more people now find decidedly unfunny than when he was doing it.

Then an Islamophobic tweet by the film’s co-writer, Nick Vallelonga (whose father is portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in the film, which is based on a true story) suddenly resurfaced as well. In the 2015 tweet, Vallelonga enthusiastically corroborated Trump’s account of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11. When it resurfaced, it drew immediate outcry, resulting in Vallelonga deleting his account and apologizing. (On top of everything, one of the film’s stars, Mahershala Ali, is a practicing Muslim.)

Rumors flew that these resurfaced stories could be part of a “smear campaign” against Green Book by a rival studio. The film had been only a moderate success with audiences to that point, and there had been plenty of critical stories about it, focusing on its glossing-over of history and on criticism of its story from the family of Don Shirley, whom Ali plays in the film. And it’s entirely possible that with the ease of searching the internet and Twitter, and the renewed interest in the film after its Golden Globes win, some random film fan just started poking around.

Yes, the timing feels like pure Weinstein. But while Weinstein himself liked to cultivate the idea that so many of today’s Oscar campaign tactics originated with him, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s lived through a couple of presidential election cycles that they’re identical to what happens every few years in America. It’s all politics.

There’s one thing an Oscar campaign can’t do that a political campaign can: run attack ads. The Academy’s rulebook explicitly bans “any tactic that singles out the competition by name or title.” And if you’re caught doing otherwise, the punishment is steep: a one-year suspension of membership for first offenses, and expulsion for repeat offenders.

But there are ways to get around this, mostly by seeding negative stories about the competition or starting “whisper campaigns” against a frontrunner. All that entails is starting a rumor with a few well-connected members of the Academy, who talk to their friends, who talk to their friends, and so on.

In 1999, Weinstein’s shop allegedly started a whisper campaign against Saving Private Ryan, suggesting it “peaked” in the first 20 minutes. That sort of assessment is fairly subjective. But even when the stories and allegations are based on real-life events (as with, for instance, an alleged whisper campaign against Casey Affleck regarding accusations of sexual misconduct before his Lead Actor win for Manchester By the Sea in 2017), the timing of the stories often seems like a calculated effort to take down a particular film or person, one that smacks of political opposition research efforts.

All this adds up to a strange truth: Even with this playbook in hand, it’s impossible to guarantee a win — and maybe harder these days than it’s ever been. There are necessary conditions to win at the Oscars, just as there are in politics. But there are no sufficient ones to guarantee you’ll bring home that golden statuette at the end of long, weary months of campaigning.

Are the Oscars good for movies?

There’s something delightful about the Oscars. They can be silly, and exhausting, and sometimes seem like a giant waste of time and money. But it’s nice to see people avidly watching, discussing, and rewarding films that exhibit the best the art form has to offer. It’s immensely satisfying when the “right” film wins.

Yet winning an Oscar doesn’t really have to do with making a great movie. Winning is about selling the movie well to Academy voters, spending a lot of money and time convincing them to vote for your film and not someone else’s.

Is this good, in the end, for movies and the people who make them? It’s hard to say definitively. Hollywood has never been just about the art of cinema; it’s always been about the business, too. An Oscar win can boost the chances that an actor or filmmaker or artist will get to work again, and it can prompt more people to watch the movie, too.

91st Annual Academy Awards - Preparations Continue
The red carpet under construction at the Dolby Theater in preparation for the 2019 Oscars.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Yet chatter about Oscar chances and snubs and strategies tends to suck the air out of the room, sometimes relegating the actual films to the sidelines or pushing worthy movies out of the spotlight if they don’t nab a nomination. Films rarely get the breathing room they need to unsettle and challenge us before we start talking about whether they’ll win the horse race. And campaigns work hard to give us an “official” line on a movie, to convince people the film’s the most important, the one that should get the trophy.

This urge to turn movies into sports or politics — maybe because those are the metaphors American media consumers know best — downplays the films themselves. Instead, they become pawns in a contest that is often won by whoever ran the best campaign.

There can be a kind of thrill in following that race, in watching for developments and predicting winners, all culminating on the big night. But, as in politics, the substance of the films themselves can get lost among the oversimplifications and glitzy events required to position those films to win. And if the Oscars keep with the two-decade trend of growing into a bigger, louder, more contentious money pit, I don’t know how much longer the joy really can last.

Movies fertilize the American imagination. They tell us what to care about and whom to root for. They become the way we project our self-image to the world. And the Oscars justifiably play a big role in how we think about Hollywood in a given moment.

But when the scale starts to tip more toward the art of winning than the art of moviemaking, we’re in danger of losing the heart of precisely what the Oscars are supposed to celebrate.