A brief history of Oscar campaigning

The year? 1930. The occasion? The second annual Academy Awards honoring the best films from 1929. The verdict? Mary Pickford, then the undisputed queen of Hollywood, came out victorious in the Best Actress category, winning the Oscar for her performance in her first-ever talkie, Coquette. The win made sense at the time; after all, Pickford was the most powerful woman in town, the greatest silent star of them all who made a seemingly successful transition to sound, and a prominent producer with ties to nearly every major actor in Hollywood. Pickford’s performance in Coquette was divisive, although critics at least agreed she was up to the task of talkies. However, no one expected her to actually win the Oscar, so when her name was called, eyebrows were raised.

How did Pickford manage to win the coveted statuette? Simple: She campaigned for it. Indeed, Pickford lobbied hard for the Oscar. According to Eileen Whitfield’s biographical novel Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywoodthe actress invited the judges over for tea at her stately home, Pickfair, which was widely considered to be the center of Hollywood social life. It also helped that Pickford was a founding member of the Academy married to its then-president, Douglas Fairbanks. So when she won the Oscar, many disagreed, but almost everyone understood it was Pickford’s time; she did the work, now she claimed the reward.

A campaign is born

an fyc ad focusing on norma shearer
Variety, 1931

Since the dawn of the ceremony, campaigning has been a part of the Academy Awards. Many view it as an unfair practice that diminishes the Oscar’s worth and status as the ultimate honor in cinema. On the other hand, others see it as a necessary part of the competition that goes hand-in-hand with the nominations themselves.

Nowadays, it’s common for studios to spend exorbitant amounts of money to campaign their movies, especially at the height of awards season. They’ll take out ads in major trades — mainly Variety and The Hollywood Reporter — and encourage their talent to give interviews, participate in round tables, attend screenings and industry events; in short, do everything they can to maintain their films in the viewers, and most importantly, the voters’ minds.

Of course, the Academy does its best to limit excessive campaigning from studios, and they generally comply. Still, it wasn’t always like that, and campaigning was once one of the most interesting and celebrated aspects of the Academy Awards.

A now-infamous MGM ad from 1931 congratulated Norma Shearer, the studio’s biggest and most bankable star, for her win for The Divorcee while suggesting she would again contend for her upcoming performance in Strangers May Kiss. Studios like RKO and Warner Brothers also had their ways to promote their pictures. For example, Warner Bros. framed Mildred Pierce as a return-to-form for Joan Crawford, then recovering from a widely publicized breakup with MGM after almost two decades. The campaign paid off, and Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress. Famously declining to attend the ceremony, Warner Bros. sent a group of photographers to Crawford’s home, and the pictures of her holding her Oscar while lying in bed became almost as famous as the film itself.

Campaigning gone wild

chill wills thr fyc ad
The Hollywood Reporter, 1961

Still, there is such a thing as too much campaigning. In keeping with the larger-than-life ceremony, some campaigns have a place of honor, or infamy, in the annals of Oscar history. Chill Wills’ efforts to take the Supporting Actor statuette in 1961 for his work in The Alamo remains one of the crassest bits of campaigning in Academy history. The actor secured the services of publicist W.S. “Bow Wow” Wojciechowicz, who proceeded to run perhaps the tackiest campaign ever by orchestrating a tremendously ill-advised ad on The Hollywood Reporter which included a picture of The Alamo‘s cast with the words, “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder — than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor.”

The ad sent shockwaves around Hollywood, with many correctly predicting it would effectively end Wills’ chances at the Oscar. “Bow Wow” later admitted that he ran the ad without Wills’ knowledge and apologized to his client, but it was too late, and Wills lost the Oscar to Spartacus‘s Peter Ustinov.

Twenty-seven years later, another Oscar campaign made headlines, albeit on a more positive note. Nowadays, critics and fans look in awe at Sally Kirkland’s legendary Oscar campaign for her role in Anna. The movie, about a struggling actress whose protégé begins to shine, had little to no opportunity of achieving awards success without a studio to back it, so Kirkland took matters into her own hands.

Rumor has it she wrote personal letters to every member of the Academy and requested famous friends like Andy Warhol, Shelley Winters, and Joan Rivers to talk about Anna everywhere they could. Kirkland used her own res to run FYC (For Your Consideration) ads and host screenings for critics, single-handedly putting her modestly-budgeted and rarely-seen movie on the awards radar. Kirkland was relentless, and Hollywood respected her for it, rewarding her with several accolades, most notably the Golden Globe.

Through sheer willpower, Sally Kirkland secured her place among the 1988 Oscar nominees for Best Actress. She was notably nervous when the ceremony finally came along, and her annoyed expression when Paul Newman announced Moonstruck‘s Cher as the winner remains an iconic moment in Oscar history. However, Oscar campaigning these days is probably synonymous with one name only: Harvey Weinstein.

The elephant in the room

viola at a party in shakespeare in love.

Once one of the most powerful and influential men in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein was behind some of the most shameless and successful Oscar campaigns in film history. As previously stated, Weinstein didn’t invent Oscar campaigning, but he made a business out of it. He also introduced a controversial but highly effective element: Intimidation. Everyone in Hollywood knew Harvey Weinstein was an a-hole, but no one cared; some even respected him because of it, and this intimidating reputation carried into his campaigning.

Weinstein made a name for himself throughout the early 1990s thanks to his successful approach to marketing his smaller indie films like 1992’s The Crying Game and 1995’s The postmanboth of which were nominated for Best Picture. Still, his greatest successes came late in the decade, cementing his reputation as the miracle worker, the man who could conjure Oscars out of any project. Weinstein wasn’t afraid of crossing boundaries, conducting thousands of calls to Academy voters and setting up screenings at their vacation spots and even at the Motion Picture Retirement Home. Miramax also bombarded audiences with ads for its films, ensuring they stayed top of mind.

The now-disgraced producer was also happy to get his hands dirty. During Shakespeare in Love‘s campaign, he encouraged the rumor that Saving Private Ryan‘s worth was only in the first twenty minutes, comparing it unfavorably to his lavish and irresistible romance piece. Shakespeare in Love eventually walked away with Best Picture, a choice the Academy still hasn’t been able to live down.

In 2002, while promoting Chicago and Gangs of New YorkWeinstein allegedly tried to encourage Academy voters not to vote for The Pianist‘s Roman Polanski by reminding them of the director’s infamous arrest in 1977. Universal, the studio behind 2001’s A Beautiful Mindclaimed Weinstein spread rumors about the film’s subject, John Nash Jr., and his presumed homosexuality and anti-Semitism.

Enough has been said about Harvey Weinstein, but there’s no denying that his guerrilla-like efforts were as effective as they were contentious. They also did considerable damage to the Academy Awards’ reputation because while campaigning has always been a factor, Weinstein introduced a sense of negativity and effectively turned the ceremony into a battlefield, with studios and actors adopting a similar approach.

Campaigning in the modern age

melissa leo posing for a photograph
Melissa Leo, 2011 (Advertisement)

With Weinstein’s shadow looming large, the new millennium featured more of the unhinged campaigning the disgraced mogul encouraged. New strategies emerged to push contenders over the edge and become frontrunners. Bruce Feldman, a veteran awards strategist, credits 2000’s Gladiator with introducing Q&As as a valuable tool in the path to Oscar glory; Gladiator indeed won Best Picture in 2001.

The rise of film festivals as awards precursors paved the way for a clear and defined “Oscar path:” Winning the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award or Venice’s Golden Lion guarantees a Best Picture nomination, at the very least. Stars go out of their way to dazzle on the red carpet, making their outfits and poses an event in and of themselves – who can forget Lady Gaga arriving at the 2018 Venice Film Festival to support A Star is Born aboard a gondola, or Taron Egerton and Elton John walking the red carpet together throughout every fall festival in support of Rocketman?

Actors will often conduct their own FYC efforts, with decidedly mixed results. In 2011, Melissa Leo dolled herself up for a highly-publicized FYC campaign that involved two often-ridiculed pictures of herself in several trades and a now-defunct website. Her efforts, widely criticized at the time, are now being reconsidered as necessary measures for the 50-year-old actress to secure the spotlight necessary to secure the statuette (which she did for David O. Russell’s The Fighter). Eddie Redmayne and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2016, Andrew Garfield this year, and the already-mentioned Egerton in 2019 are some recent examples of actors who went everywhere and did everything to ensure their spot among the Oscar five; the first three succeeded, but Egerton sadly failed.

This year, Lady Gaga conducted one of the most unhinged campaigns in recent memory, telling everyone who’d listen how she went to extreme lengths to prepare for her role in House of Gucciwith stories that went from the expected (she used her Italian accent even when the cameras were off) to the completely off-the-wall (she believed the real Patrizia Gucci sent “large swarms of flies” to follow her around).

Studios, of course, remain staunchly committed to promoting their films and talent, although the Academy’s rules have become stricter with time. Still, there are always ways to fool the system. In 2011, the Weinstein Company, through its parent company, Prometheus Global Media, sent Academy voters an e-mail highlighting Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Ladya widely criticized move that nonetheless resulted in Streep winning the Best Actress Oscar in 2012. Studios will also push for essays and features in renowned trades; in 2019, Warner Bros. sponsored a think piece on Variety highlighting Joker‘s themes of class division and mental health awareness.

Was it worth it?

The Academy Awards remain a beacon of excellence in Hollywood, but it’s undeniable that they are now, perhaps more than ever, an outright competition where the best challenger comes out on top. Winning an Oscar has to do with a mix of things, including but not limited to a “worthy” performance, whatever that means. Nominees need the right role and studio, the perfect narrative, and, yes, the best campaign. It’s easier for an actor to win for the perfect campaign than it is for the right performance.

It might be unfair, considering all the talent in indie films from smaller studios that lack the res to launch an all-out campaign for their movies, and campaigning does highlight and perpetuate a culture of privilege and imbalance popularized by some of Hollywood’s most reprehensible figures. Still, campaigning has been a part of the ceremony since its inception, and it’s safe to say it isn’t going anywhere; it’s just the way things go.

So good luck to all the campaigners — excuse us, nominees, and may the Oscar odds be ever in their favor.

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