As we near the end of the year, Hollywood studios are preparing to roll out their newest flock of contenders for the 2024 Awards Season. The period between October and January is, historically, the most bloated (and frantic) time for new movie releases, as companies cram to vie for decorations and publicity in the winter. This period is called “Oscar Season.”
There are many – too many – award shows nowadays; hosted by guilds, artistic foundations, academies, critics, and whatever the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is. Let’s face it, the main prize is still Oscar: the 4-hour glitzy schmooze-fest that parades the so-called best in show on velvet and gold. What the public may not fully grasp about the Oscars and other award shows, is how exactly they are run.
Oscar season is campaign season, and it is the same as any political campaign. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent on merchandise and advertising both for the public and for the exclusive group of a thousand voting Academy members. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences held the first formal Oscar ceremony in May of 1928, and the first Best Picture winner was the World War I silent epic Wings.
In the 95 years that followed, the little gold statuette became a coveted entity: a sacred affirmation of accomplishment, when a father’s hug won’t suffice. Screenwriter, William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) rightly stated that when one wins an Oscar, the first line of their obituary is already written. The Oscar is a status, and a status that is attained through relentless battling.
The standard Oscar campaign ranges between $5 – 30 million, depending on the number of contenders the studios are willing to push. In 2019, Netflix pulled out all the stops for their nominated films The Irishman and Marriage Story, spending an estimated $70 Million on a collective total of sixteen nominations. That $70 Million produced only one winner: a Best Supporting Actress win for Laura Dern.
A simple nomination produces benefits such as an automatic fee increase for any name read aloud during the ceremony. Indeed, it’s an honor just to be nominated! Other financial incentives include advertising during the show. The 2022 Oscars raked in $139 Million, with the cost of a 30-second ad starting at $2 Million.
The biggest campaign this year will be for Oppenheimer and Barbie, both of which premiered well before the Oscar season. Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon will open next weekend, with Apple TV banking on the $200 million epic to bring their 2nd Best Picture winner (the distributor saw CODA win in an upset in 2022). More releases expected to lure the attention of Oscar voters will be covered here in the coming weeks, but for now it is important to emphasize that to win an Academy Award, you need lots of money and lots of rallying.
The man who many proclaimed was the most ruthless at Oscar campaigning was Harvey Weinstein, whose films won a total of eighty-one awards throughout his career as a producer. The infamous 1999 Oscars saw his Shakespeare in Love seemingly steal the grand prize from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; perhaps the greatest shock in the history of the awards. Ryan was the odds-on favorite to win, with one Academy member telling Vanity Fair “Should we just Fed-Ex the Oscar to Steven to save the trouble of voting?”
Nevertheless, Shakespeare came out on top. Later, it was revealed why. Weinstein started a “whisper campaign,” influencing journalists to smear Ryan as an unfulfilling spectacle. It worked. His tactics grew slimier with each year, at two points getting Washington D.C. involved; Weinstein hired a campaign organizer for President Obama to rally industry support for Silver Linings Playbook, and the following year he persuaded Philomena Lee, the source for his film Philomena, to testify with then-Senator Claire McCaskill on reforms to the adoption process.
Weinstein’s final year of mudslinging before his 2017 bombshell sexual assault reports saw him promoting the film Lion, a story of a man from India searching for his long-lost family, nominated for Best Picture against the likes of La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, in an email chain citing then-President Trump’s ban on Muslim entry to the U.S. as a premier reason to support the film.
Weinstein is gone, but the money, status, and power remain. Who will be the engineers of the new campaigns? What will it look like behind the scenes? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to dish out on it as Oscar Season ‘24 blooms.
Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.