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Reality Checks: Oscar Doc Campaigns Have Become Fast, Costly and Out of Control

Reality Checks: Oscar Doc Campaigns Have Become Fast, Costly and Out of Control

READ MORE: Anne Thompson’s Oscar Predictions

Beverly Hills luncheons and fancy cocktail parties don’t seem to click with harrowing social and political issues — from campus rape to Indonesian genocide to violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. But hey, it’s awards season, and these days, even documentaries are getting into the high-priced, high-stakes Oscar racket.

While awards campaigns have always been integral to the nonfiction business, insiders say this year’s race is one of the most costly and competitive. “The amount of lobbying and marketing that now occurs even just to get a film on the [Oscar] short list has gotten out of control,” said Dan Cogan, executive director of Impact Partners and an executive producer on short-listed documentary “The Hunting Ground.”

Campaigning has ratcheted up this year as a result of several factors. For one, the 2012 rule changes to the documentary category have created an environment where the most popular films have an advantage. Now, the entire doc branch determines the nominated films, rather than select committees, and secondly, the entire Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership can vote on the winner. (With more than 100 films to sift through during the nomination process, you can bet preference is given to those documentaries that have more recognizable filmmakers or subjects.)

“With the demise of the committee system in the documentary branch, the films with the biggest profiles get the best shot at the short list and nominations,” said Cogan, “so everyone is trying to raise their profile from the get-go.”

New Oscar Players, from Netflix to Showtime

The economics of releasing indie films has also become so risky that an awards boost can make a huge difference to distributors’ and producers’ bottom lines. In particular, new kids on the Oscar block (Netflix, CNN, Showtime, A24) want to show they can mount successful awards campaigns to make a name for themselves and court future filmmakers.

“The one obvious development is TV channels and SVOD [streaming-video-on-demand] platforms with deep pockets [are] becoming more active,” said Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz, whose company is mounting an Oscar campaign for the climbing doc “Meru,” which is also the company’s first in the documentary category.

Netflix, for instance, has taken out “For Your Consideration” ads—costing tens of thousands of dollars — on the cover of industry trade Variety for its two films, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”  “The level of spending is insane this year,” said another documentary insider.

But Amy Entelis, Executive Vice President for Talent and Content Development at CNN Worldwide and an executive producer on “The Hunting Ground,” said the Oscars weren’t a huge factor for CNN Films, which has yet to garner a nomination. “Awards are a great thing, but I can’t say it drives the way we’re operating,” she added.

CNN may have the backing of massive media company Time Warner, but Entelis said they’re letting the film’s accomplished specialized distributor take the lead on the film’s awards campaign. “We’re collaborating with RADiUS,” she said. “They are the experts.”

How RADiUS Raised the Bar

Indeed, the company has won the documentary Oscar the past two years in a row, for “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Citizenfour.” Despite the departure earlier this year of RADiUS executives Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, Liza Burnett Fefferman, the company’s executive vice president of publicity, said, “We are very much in the game and remain as competitive as ever.”

Lest we forget RADiUS’s parent business, The Weinstein Company, is run by two of Hollywood’s most famous Oscar-campaigners, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose passion for accolades appears to have infected the entire documentary industry.

This has sparked a heated environment, with publicists working overtime to make sure voters see these films in the best possible light and organizing events where they — and their subjects — can shine. One prominent example is RADiUS’s orchestration of a performance by the star back-up singers from Morgan Neville’s “20 Feet From Stardom” at the 2014 Rose Bowl.

This season is no different. In November, Netflix and “Empire” producer-director Lee Daniels hosted Lauryn Hill and doc director Liz Garbus for a special “What Happened, Miss Simone?” tribute concert in Los Angeles; last week, Lady Gaga hosted a Beverly Hills luncheon and performance for “The Hunting Ground”; theater director Peter Sellars hosted a lunch for Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence”; while Katheryn Bigelow hosted one for “Cartel Land.”

This week, Academy members will be especially busy: Yesterday, Netflix booked influential Rabbi Marvin Hier to host a screening of “Winter on Fire” at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance, and tonight, RADiUS has set up a “TimesTalks” with columnist Frank Bruni, Lady Gaga, songwriter Diane Warren, and filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. (“Hunting Ground” backers are also jockeying for a best song nomination for Gaga and Warren, inspired by the film).

Events such as these require lots of money (a modest luncheon might cost $5,000-$7,000) and highly coordinated publicity teams.

The Publicity Machine for Docs

This year’s documentaries have several groups working on their behalf. The busiest award-season publicity firm for documentaries, Nancy Willen’s Acme PR, is currently working on 10 out of the 15 short-listed films (“Best of Enemies,” “Cartel Land,” “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “He Named Me Malala,” “Heart of a Dog,” “The Hunting Ground,” “Listen to Me Marlon,” “Meru,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” and “Winter on Fire”).

A key figure when it comes to documentary Oscar campaigns, Willen is difficult to reach this time of year. On the day the Academy announced the short list, Willen’s cellphone voicemail and even her email were full, unable to receive messages. With so many films on the company’s slate, it’s a wonder how they are able to give any of their individual films focused attention.

But every documentary on Acme’s list has other champions as well. For instance, “Cartel Land” is also being supported by Cinetic Marketing’s Ryan Werner, who is also helping on Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next?”, “Meru,” and “Heart of a Dog.” Meanwhile, “Best of Enemies” and “He Named Me Malala” also have the backing of powerhouse producers Participant Media, and its own veteran marketing executive Laura Kim. Participant is also backing other contenders, “The Look of Silence” and “3 ½ Minutes,” the latter of which also has the support of HBO Films.

Apparently, it takes a village to garner an Oscar nomination. And money, of course. An award-season marketing investment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars may seem high for an intimate nonfiction film about a Pakistani girl activist or the Ukrainian revolution. However, for many of the bigger companies — see Fox Searchlight, back in the doc category with “He Named Me Malala” — an Oscar-nomination or award will potentially prove its long-term value in the company’s library.

“But it wouldn’t be worth it to us,” admitted distributor Richard Abramowitz, who is working on Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog.” With less cash than a Netflix, Searchlight or RADiUS, Abramowitz said the company has to be more inventive to raise the film’s visibility. For instance, later this month, Laurie Anderson will be performing two concerts for dogs and their owners in New York and L.A. in keeping with the film’s story.

“The attention for a film like this is great and well-deserved,” said Abramowitz, “but it’s not something that we’re going to devote a whole lot of resources to.”

But Abramowitz is probably the exception.

Because documentaries have perennially been a place where people spend for the love of a project (and not necessarily the bottom line), Impact Partners’ Cogan said even filmmakers are responding to the competitive pressure by spending more of their own money to support awards campaigns. “It’s a perfect storm pushing towards an explosion in marketing and promotion,” he said.

READ MORE: DOC NYC Lifts Oscar Season, But Why So Many Films?

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This idea that it’s somehow very difficult to get nominated as an outsider doesn’t seem to hold up to close scrutiny at all. In fact, I think the doc branch can be proud of the number of first- or second-time time directors, all non-doc branch members, who have earned Oscar nominations in the past five years:

These include Josh Fox (Gasland), Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), Banksy (Exit Through the Gift Shop), TJ Martin & Dan Lindsay (Undefeated), Danfung Dennis (Hell and Back Again), Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugar Man), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi (5 Broken Cameras), Dror Moreh (The Gatekeepers), David France (How To Survive a Plague), Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie & The Boxer), Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill (Dirty Wars), John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivian Maier) and Orlando von Einsiedel (Virunga). You might add to that list Joshua Oppenheimer who, while he had made some films, was certainly not on most people’s radars prior to The Act of Killing. And I haven’t even started listing the short docs.

So no, you don’t have to be an insider. The challenge is really having your doc stand out from the crowd over the calendar year, from Sundance onwards, and landing a major distributor to make some noise: HBO, Netflix, Sony Pictures Classics, Weinstein, et cetera.

Anthony Kaufman

After publication of this story, I was contacted by another insider with this suspicious factoid: There are only three films on the 15-film shortlist that don’t have a documentary branch member affiliated with the project ("Meru," "Amy," and "Heart of a Dog.") So 80% of the short-listed docs are made by documentary insiders who already participate and know folks who participate in the Oscar documentary voting process. One could say this is because these are already experienced documentary filmmakers who have proven track records and make good films. But the cynical among you might suggest that unless you are already in the documentary branch, it is statistically very difficult to get nominated as an outsider.

Arthur Dong

In 1997, when a handfull of documentary Academy members first began to advocate for a documentary branch, our mission was to elevate the prominence of documentaries in the theatrical arena, and to work for a level playing field in the nomination process; one task was to address well-funded corporate influence. The initial re-vamping of rules and procedures was universally applauded, so It’s disappointing to witness how the situation has evolved in the past 18 years. With all due respect to the films that find their way to the shortlist, many produced by valued colleagues and friends, I still vote, but with tempered belief in a process that’s gone askew.

Chris Horton

Good piece Anthony. Worth highlighting the many, many filmmakers splitting up rights who spend tens of thousands of dollars to qualify their films for academy consideration. In the new climate, these films have horrendous odds of being nominated let alone shortlisted.

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