The Awards Machine Behind the Golden Globes and Oscars
Before I joined the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) in 2010, and became a Golden Globe awards voter, I had often been baffled by the Oscars and Golden Globes choices of nominated films and talent, and vexed by the absence of my favourite movies, which I thought were more artistically deserving and accomplished. So when I entered the Hollywood system and suddenly wielded some influence, I was determined to do something about it. Soon, I learned how naive and uninformed I had been.
In my first year of voting, I scored a less than 30% match with the Golden Globes nominations, and around 40% with Oscars’ – it’s easier with Oscars because they don’t honour TV. This is the kind of score many prominent film critics achieve in their best movies of the year lists. Those critics’ lists don’t even correlate with each other, demonstrating yet again that art is not an exact science underpinned by rigid mathematical rules and logical thinking, but a subjective expression that is measured by our emotional response to it.
“I want the audience to feel my movies, not understand them,” Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight trilogy, once told me. Indeed, we appreciate a film when its story resonates with us, and we bond with its characters and vicariously feel their pains and joys as they journey from one conflict to another. But given that we come from different cultures, creeds and ethnicities, which engender different sensibilities, we tend to react differently to the same movie. The Oscar nominations, for instance, are easier to predict because over two thirds of its voters, the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Motion Pictures members, are white men, while the Golden Globes choices are more challenging to foresee, because its 90 voters, the HFPA members, are equally divided between men and woman, and come from a wide range of nationalities and cultures. No wonder, the American press, which is made up of the white elite, often decry them as eccentrics, though the right term should be “diverse,” something the Oscars has struggled to achieve.
The truth is that you don’t need to be a film expert in order to judge the merit of a movie. The only required qualification for such an undertaking is to have feelings, in other words to be a sentient human being. In fact, before releasing a picture, a studio herds random people from shopping malls into a theatre to watch it, and based on their feedback, the movie is re-edited, often to the chagrin of the director.
Furthermore, many of the films that have won the audience awards at film festivals such as Toronto, like Argo, Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years A Slave, ended up scooping the Oscar and Golden Globe for best picture, yet films that have triumphed at the prestigious Cannes and Venice film festivals, where the trophies are handed by juries made up of prominent filmmakers and artists, seldom feature at the aforementioned awards. A German movie, Tony Erdmann, which was snubbed by this year’s Cannes Jury yet adored by the audience, has recently received a Golden Globe nomination and has been shortlisted by the Academy in the best foreign Language film category. Meanwhile, La La Land, which was overlooked by the Jury in Venice for the highest honour though won the Audience Award in Toronto, is leading this award season race for the best picture at the Golden Globes and Oscars.
So when it comes to judging a movie, an Oscar or a Golden Globe voter is not more qualified than any other member of the audience, the only difference resides in the impact of their vote on a film and its talent. The Golden Globes, for instance, attract a stupendous amount of press and public attention, and their ceremony is watched on TV and the web by hundreds of millions of people around the world – the consequence of the infamous power of fame.
Golden Globes’ recognition is a tremendous boon for a film A nomination results in up to 30% boost in the box office, while a win could push up its gross by as much as 1000%. Case in point, “Boyhood” and “Grand Budapest Hotel,” Golden Globe best picture winners in drama and comedy in 2015, saw their box office gross soaring 1003% and 753% respectively. Several studies have shown that on average, a film that receives a Golden Globe enjoys extra box office sales of $14.2 million. The awareness generated by the award also leads to a substantial increase in DVD sales.
A nomination or a win for a TV show or its talent is even more significant, and hence more coveted. Several TV executives have told me that sometimes it was a matter of life and death for their shows. In the current crowded field of cable, networks and webstreaming, a TV show could easily sink in the abyss of indifference and ultimately be dropped by the broadcaster, but a Golden Globe nod ensures its survival and revival. It’s not uncommon for shows that were destined for cancellation to get a new season after garnering Golden Globe recognition.
The talent also reaps great benefits. Several talent agents have revealed to me that a Golden Globe win raised their clients’ salaries by an average of 20%. Several young actors told me that they were inundated with lucrative job offers thanks to their Golden Globes nomination. Similarly, established actors witness a surge in their careers, which sometimes had been teetering, before gaining such an honour. Ricky Gervais, who joked about the value of the trophy when he emceed its ceremony in 2013, admitted to me in an interview for the BBC that his 2001 nomination for his role as a producer and as an actor in the TV show “The Office” opened Hollywood gates for him. “It had been a small show in England, and suddenly the entire world knows about us. Everybody in Hollywood wanted to talk to me,” he explained. Indeed, the award catapulted the British comedian to superstardom and spawned an American version of his small show.
And behind the scene, publicists and award consultants, who are the engine of the awards machine, collect hefty bonuses when their projects or clients gain a nomination or a win. They are effectively the real winners, because without their services it would be nearly impossible for the nominees and winners to achieve any award recognition. So much that when Oscar or Golden Globes nominations come out, my first instinct is to check for who was the publicist, not the talent, behind them.
With all that in mind, the concept of film awards changes completely. Like anything else in Hollywood, they are a business enterprise, which is built on the premise that films are simply products. Employing a formidable marketing and publicity machine, the studios coax awards voters to vote for these products the same way they do to lure the multitudes to theatres to watch them. Behind every Oscar or Golden Globe winner, there had been a huge campaign costing millions of dollars. So if you think that your favourite movie has won because it was artistically superior to others, then sadly you’re mistaken.
Of course, you don’t send a limping horse to a race. A movie has to have some artistic merit in order to even enter the competition, and the studios are fully aware of that. Given the expense of an award campaign, a studio can’t mount such an operation for each one of the dozens of movies it makes in a year, hence the executives sit down with their publicity department and awards consultants and select a small number of movies -up to 4- that have the best chance to win. The chosen ones have often benefited from one or more of the following: a positive critical reaction, an appealing social or political theme to voters, festivals or press or even social media buzz, some box office success and directed by an auteur. But ultimately, a good consultant or a publicist recognizes an award a movie when she sees it.
Once candidates are chosen, the studio hires awards publicists and consultants, who have over the years harnessed personal relationships with voters and even learned their psychology, sensibilities and their social, political and artistic inclinations, and form a specific campaign strategy for each project. In many cases, the message of the campaign is more important than the subject of the movie it aims to promote, because all voters are exposed to the campaign but many don’t get to see the movie. Oscar voters are busy professionals, who work long hours on film sets scattered around the world and have little time to watch hundreds of movies. Some have confessed to me that they just copy the Golden Globes nominations or vote for their friends’ films.
Effective campaigns can also render a movie’s artistic merit irrelevant. Many voters have told me that they couldn’t watch Steve McQueen’s 2013 Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning “12 Years A Slave” due to its depiction of gruesome violence, yet they voted for it because it was the politically-correct thing to do, or risk being dubbed racists. It was also politically correct for Academy members to award Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” the Oscar for best picture and best director in 2009, because it was about time to honour a female director with an Oscar. These effective politically-correct messages were orchestrated by none other than the publicity machines.
In addition to throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising on the pages of industry outlets such as Variety and Hollywood Reporter, and on billboards around Los Angeles in order to attract voters’ attention, awards campaigns entail relentless pursuit of those voters on a personal level, urging them to attend film screenings, which often come with dinners and a meet-and-greet the talent, inviting them to lavish parties and receptions to schmooze with the movies’ stars, who are flown in from distant film sets, sometimes making a 15-hour flight in order to attend a couple-of-hours party. Mountains of gifts, containing DVD screeners of the movies and hand-written personal postcards from their talent, land on voters doorsteps, all in the hope to gain their coveted attention.
A campaign for one project can sometimes turn into a disparaging campaign against another competitor. It’s not uncommon for a publicist to react furiously when I praise one film or talent over theirs. They instantly launch into a long tirade against that film or talent before they eagerly try to highlight the artistic superiority of their project and their noble message and praise the fine performance of their client. “Isn’t he/she amazing? Isn’t he/she a genius? Isn’t it an intelligent movie?” these are common phrases you hear from publicists about their clients during the awards season. It’s kind of a form of brainwashing.
The methods of these campaigns vary in their effectiveness, but they certainly make a difference. For a voter to claim that they are not affected by them will be fooling herself, for these campaigns, like any form of marketing or advertising, are designed to work on the subconscious, emotional level, Just like the movies. These campaigns’ impact is not restricted to awards voters, they metastasise in the public domain, through conventional and social media.
Having formed professional or personal relationships with executives, publicists, talent and filmmakers over the years, my perspective on awards and voting for them have changed. I’ve learned that I am more effective being part of the Hollywood system than confronting it. It’s a system in which everybody needs the other in order to survive and succeed in this business. It’s a partnership. The studios need the awards as much as I want the Golden Globes to be a success. How I cast my votes is a different topic, but suffice to say that this year, my choices matched nearly 90% of the Golden Globes nominations, which will most likely correlate with the upcoming Oscar nominations. Pragmatism always yields better results than idealism. Life would be tediously boring if it were just perfect. Those imperfections are the source of the entertainment that we all relish and devour.