Peter Bart: Oscars Voters Binge, And Mail Carriers Groan, As Streamers Add Heft To Awards Load

“I miss my invisibility.” That’s what a first-time Academy voter told me last week, reacting to the daily fusillades of screeners, invitations and assorted swag, plus the prodding phone calls, that now accompany Oscar membership.

I found his complaint amusing: When I became a new voter years ago it was akin to joining a secret society. All I received was a ballot (yes, paper) and a terse Academy welcoming note. Today’s new members find themselves instant targets of extravagantly sophisticated marketing campaigns – the proverbial fish in a barrel. The attention has become surreal.

Membership in the Academy is an honor (mine dates back five decades). Further, the process of voting imposes a worthy discipline; it prompts members to see the movies (preferably in theaters) and to ponder their artistry. An example: I avoided seeing Joker until voting time; it represents brilliant filmmaking and I’m grateful for the prod.

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But life becomes challenging now that my UPS and mail carriers are increasingly grumpy about their multiple visits. And while I welcome the screeners (the list keeps growing), I’m ambivalent about the swag and stacks of screenplays: Do I really want to read Shia LaBeouf’s script of Honey Boy, faithfully printed by Amazon? The cover of The Report screenplay warns it’s “for smart audiences.” Do I qualify?

The assorted swag dispatched from the Academy is augmented by the flotsam and jetsam sent out via television promotions: like the sexy pink package containing “Mrs Maisel’s Comedy Tour,” or the elegant black box offering Modern Love videos (“Love Will Find Its Truth”). Officially, the Academy frowns on “excess,” but it has stepped up its own campaign of skillful prodding. “Voting is a responsibility to take seriously,” declared last week’s reminder. Their “reminders” are reinforced by promises of improved technology: For example, streaming via the “Academy screening room,” accessible through its membership portal and a new Apple TV 4 app.

Since movies are easier to see, and easier to vote on, the distribution companies are all the
more incentivized to push their product. Especially the streaming giants.

Oscar lore tells us that Mary Pickford began it all. Disturbed when rival Janet Gaynor won the first “best actress” Oscar in 1929, Pickford threw a lavish dinner party in year two (and won). My trusted Oscar historian, Timothy Gray, has reported that serious Oscar campaigning actually began in 1967 when Arthur Jacobs, a producer-publicist, persuaded Fox to throw festive parties on behalf of Doctor Dolittle. The musical, which most critics found clunky, was rewarded with an array of Oscar nominations.

Videos began proliferating in the late 1980s, and by the ’90s the Academy unwittingly made a giant contribution to the trade papers; they banned the studios from direct contact with members. The upshot: Ever expanding trade ad campaigns (full disclosure: I personally benefited when I was editor in chief of Variety). In 1999, when Shakespeare In Love somehow stole the Oscar away from Saving Private Ryan – an upset attributed to the manipulative guile of Harvey Weinstein — Oscar gamesmanship took on a new dimension.

Candidly, Oscar campaigns did not invade my consciousness until that moment in 1972 when an aura of magic began to surround The Godfather. Having worked diligently to launch the film, I summoned a meeting of Paramount’s advertising gurus to discuss awards contention. An uninspired campaign was launched. No publicist reached out for help from the tribe of “awards editors” because no one had as yet invented that title. “If the movie is as good as you think, it will garner its own support,” the chief of advertising informed me. It did.

What no one could imagine at that time – or even a couple of years ago – was the galvanizing entry of Netflix on the awards scene. Netflix signaled its initiative with the hiring of Lisa Taback, the free-spending awards titan, and with the resulting mega campaign for Roma. No longer did a voter receive a simple invitation to see Roma, but was offered a command performance at a Netflix theater, replete with special sound and projection. Watching a Netflix movie was now an event. For the foreign press, meanwhile, campaigns for the Golden Globes would now entail even grander dinners and junkets.

The Oscar member of a generation ago would never have imagined that a film like The Irishman would someday be available on TV screens, even as it was still playing in select theaters and in the Academy’s screening room.

So, if some Oscar voters feel invaded, even benumbed, by the assault on their senses, they
should look at it this way: Invisibility has its virtues, but it’s a lot more fun being the center of the action.

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