The Oscar Campaign That Changed Everything for Indies (Guest Column)

Bruce Feldman, a pioneering awards strategist, reflects on the awards season 30 years ago when he and Harry Clein, his partner at Feldman + Clein, helped to guide 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and 'The Trip to Bountiful' past the odds to Oscar glory.
William Hurt in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' (left) and Geraldine Page in 'The Trip to Bountiful' (right)  Courtesy of Photofest

When Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, A24’s Room and Open Road’s Spotlight landed a combined 13 Academy Award nominations last month, including best picture mentions for each, few people remarked that indies had fared so well. That’s because these days it’s common — even expected — for the Academy to recognize unconventional films from independent producers and distributors. But 30 years ago, when two other indies received a combined six nominations, it was a big deal, and it set the stage for the modern era of Oscar campaigning.

Back then, my partner Harry Clein and I operated a tony public relations firm — Clein+Feldman — specializing in worthwhile but difficult-to-market movies. Through the 1980s, we elevated many indie films into crossover hits, including Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing, John Huston’s The Dead, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa and Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. We also handled prestige studio films, most notably Alan Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice and Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, for which Meryl Streep and Sally Field, respectively, won best actress Oscars.

Two breakthrough indies on which we worked in 1985 were Hector Babenco’s poetic Kiss of the Spider Woman and Peter Masterson’s elegiac The Trip to Bountiful, movies few thought would transcend the art house circuit, much less win Academy Awards. Though both pictures enjoyed massive critical support and solid grosses, neither was what Oscar voters had historically embraced. The former explored the complex relationship between two men sharing a prison cell, one a revolutionary (Raul Julia), the other a homosexual (William Hurt). The latter simply showed an old woman (Geraldine Page), determined to pay one last visit to her childhood home, on a bus ride with a young woman (Rebecca De Mornay).

“Oscar campaigns” involved far fewer moving parts than they do today. There were no “awards consultants” to guide us; we were improvising and learning as we went along. Film festivals like Sundance, Telluride and Toronto weren’t treated as Oscar launching pads as they are today. We didn’t throw a lot of parties, as is the norm today. Q&As were unheard of; they didn’t emerge as a campaign staple until 2000’s Gladiator, another film I worked on, did a series of them and wound up winning best picture. Online bloggers and pundits held no power over the preferences of voters because nobody had the Internet. And there were no screeners of any kind; Hollywood big shots viewed films in their private projection rooms on the old Bel Air Circuit, while rank-and-file Academy members watched them in theaters, in screening rooms or not at all.

We got Spider Woman and Bountiful tons of coverage in the press — more than any 10 other films combined — but this was not going to translate into Oscars unless the films’ distributor, Island Pictures, got aggressive, as well. That meant spending at studio levels, which independents simply hadn’t had the money or will to do up to that point. But, to their credit, Island chiefs Cary Brokaw and Russell Schwartz didn’t blink when I showed them my proposed advertising budget. They understood that it was a go-big-or-go-home moment. When you see independents spending many millions of dollars on awards campaigns nowadays, remember: this is where it all began.

We needed a strong creative strategy, too. For Spider Woman, we made a conscious decision never to show Hurt and Julia together in ads or on the poster, even though Hurt was a huge star at the time. We believed in the universality of the movie and didn’t want it to be pigeonholed as “a gay-themed drama.” We also worked tirelessly to remind the press to look at it in the same way. If we could create a crossover hit, we reasoned, we would position the film as an Oscar contender. In the end, Spider Woman played in more than 2,000 theaters, many of which rarely showed anything other than mainstream fare, and it became a breakout hit, grossing more than $17 million. This is a typical rollout for many indie films today, but it wasn’t at the time. Spider Woman set the model.

Bountiful posed even greater obstacles. It opened very late in the season, a few days before Christmas, requiring an aggressive, costly screening program. We booked the movie into the Music Hall on Wilshire Blvd., so that voters might see our expensive illuminated marquee each time they attended a screening of some other film at the Academy a few blocks down or went to lunch or shop in Beverly Hills. We also aimed to remind voters that this was Page’s eighth Oscar nomination, that she had never won — and that this was, perhaps, her last major role. (Sadly, that turned out to be true: she died two years later.)

In the end, our efforts paid off. Spider Woman garnered picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay nominations. Bountiful was nominated for actress and adapted screenplay. And on Oscar night, both Hurt and Page took home statuettes, making them the first performers from indie films to do so since the fall of the studio system.

Others in the indie community took note. The next year, Cinecom’s Ira Deutchman spearheaded a vigorous campaign for A Room With A View, resulting in a best picture nom. Three years after that came Miramax’s My Left Foot, giving us an introductory glimpse into Harvey Weinstein’s clever tactics and relentless determination. Once Harvey got a foothold, Oscar campaigns would never be the same again.

Bruce Feldman is a senior motion picture marketing and public relations executive. He has been a strategist on many prominent Academy Awards campaigns, including Kiss of the Spider Woman, Schindler’s List, Gladiator and 2015’s 99 Homes.

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