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A few days have passed since the 88th Academy Awards came to an end, but the high of victory is still being felt by one winner who never made it onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre: Lisa Taback, the veteran awards strategist who runs the West Hollywood consulting firm LTLA. This year, Taback played a central role in the Oscar campaigns of Open Road’s Spotlight, A24’s Room and Amy and Sony’s Spectre, among many other top contenders (Sony’s Concussion, Lionsgate’s Sicario and the list goes on). So, as you might imagine, she was very pleased with the winners of best original song (Spectre‘s “Writing’s on the Wall”), best documentary feature (Amy), best actress (Room‘s Brie Larson), best original screenplay and best picture (Spotlight).
“I’m feeling amazing, I have to say,” Taback acknowledged over the phone the morning after, having reluctantly agreed to be interviewed for this piece. “I cannot believe the number of calls and emails and texts I’ve gotten — it’s kind of crazy.” After the ceremony ended with Spotlight‘s odds-defying win of the top honor, she accompanied its team to the Governors Ball, where the winners got their statuettes engraved, and where Walter Robinson, the journalist played in the film by Michael Keaton, offered her a tearful thank you. (“I think that was the one that meant the most,” she says.) She then headed over with them to Open Road’s after-party at Palihouse, where each of the winners entered to applause and she was surrounded by attendees offering congratulations and asking to take photographs with her. Later, she made her way to a party that was being thrown at a private estate for Sam Smith, one of the winners for Spectre, and she and friends “partied like rockstars” until 5am. She says with a laugh, “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on Oscar night?”
The 52-year-old wife of Playground Media Group owner Christopher Sliney and mother of Claire, 17, and Colin, 12, has experienced something of a rollercoaster ride over the last couple of years. In 2014 she parted ways, under less than pleasant terms, with Harvey Weinstein, for whom she had worked since 1995, first at Miramax and then at The Weinstein Co., initially as an in-house publicist and then, starting around 2000, as an outside consultant on a mostly-exclusive basis. (She was one of the principal architects of many of Weinstein’s fabled Oscar successes, including best picture wins for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, 2002’s Chicago, 2010’s The King’s Speech and 2011’s The Artist — and, like Harvey, she developed a reputation for playing the game with her gloves off.) Suddenly, she found herself at a crossroads — and decided to do a “life overhaul.”
“I decided to get serious about my priorities,” Taback says. She embarked “on a very serious diet and fitness plan” and wound up shedding a considerable amount of weight, which, she says, “gave me boundless energy.” And she re-imagined her company and what it could do, and soon found herself in greater demand than ever.
With business booming, she made a number of key additions to her LTLA team, which is now equipped to handle numerous campaigns in the way that entire PR firms like Rogers & Cowan once did. She hired Christy Grosz, a veteran journalist, to be her deputy, and says that Grosz’s unusual perspective and skill-set has helped to make her “one of the most incredible strategists I’ve ever come upon.” And she also retained Albert Tello, an up-and-coming young publicist who, she says, “understands music publicity better than anyone I’ve known since [the late] Ronni Chasen.” Taback emphasizes that any credit people want to give her for successes like those on Sunday must be shared with Grosz, Tello and the other employees of LTLA. “It takes a team and a village,” she says. “My team is rock solid, super smart and super stealth.”
People outside of Hollywood might wonder what awards consultants do and whether they can truly impact a film’s Oscar prospects. The answer is yes. There are some responsibilities that almost all of them fulfill — things like courting press coverage, babysitting talent, scheduling screenings and mailing screeners — but the good ones do more. They patiently navigate and woo all sorts of quirky and demanding characters, from festival directors to bloggers to Academy members. They creatively frame their contenders in the most advantageous light by creating narratives and talking-points and taglines for them. And, at their best, they conceive of opportunities that increase people’s desire to see and vote for a film, and then bring them to life. This is where Taback shines.
For Spotlight, Taback, in partnership with Open Road’s EVP of publicity Liz Biber (a fellow Weinstein vet) and VP of publicity Lori Burns, and with unprecedented financial support from Open Road chief Tom Ortenberg, kept the journalists and survivors portrayed in the film on the circuit with its stars from the Toronto International Film Festival through Oscar night, which gave the film a stamp of authenticity and credibility that few others possessed; she also kept its large ensemble of stars engaged and invested in the campaign for six months, whereas competitors’ stars were largely MIA. And she facilitated pseudo-events, like a screening of the film for the Vatican Commission investigating sexual abuse and an LA Press Club award for the real journalists, which emphasized the notion that the film was making a real-world impact.
Ortenberg tells me, “Lisa brings sophistication and maturity to any project with which she is involved. Her tireless spirit and unmatched depth of expertise has been an invaluable asset to all of us on Spotlight.” Biber adds, “I put Lisa at the center of the storm from the very beginnings of the campaign back in Telluride and Toronto. All of our Open Road team, the filmmakers, the actors and the real reporters had the chance to get to know her and rely on her as we do. As Spotlight winds down, we intend to make Lisa a permanent fixture in the Open Road family tree.”
For Room, in partnership with A24’s executive Nicolette Aizenberg, as well as Strategy PR and Ginsberg/Libby, she hammered home just how different stars Brie Larson and nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay are from the characters they played (the barometer by which many Academy members calculate great acting), which propelled not only Larson but also the film and its heretofore little-known director Lenny Abrahamson to noms. And she even had the 11×11 foot set on which the film was shot in Canada reconstructed at West LA’s Landmark Theatre, so that locals — including Academy members — could see what a unique challenge it was to make the film in the first place.
For Amy, she trotted out, from coast to coast, the ultimate surrogate imaginable, Amy Winehouse‘s previously press-shy best friend Nick Shymansky (he spoke after director Asif Kapadia gave his acceptance speeches at New York’s National Board of Review Awards and LA’s Los Angeles Film Critics Associations Awards), and experts, like TV and radio personality Dr. Drew Pinsky, who spoke about the film’s value as not only a celebrity profile but also a cautionary lesson on addiction and mental illness. And for Spectre, she got Smith to fly in from the U.K. to glad-hand with Academy members at Hollywood events, and focused their attention on the use of the song within the film. “We really tried to have the song and the opening title sequence from Spectre as the focal point of the campaign,” she says.
As Oscar night approached, Taback says she felt cautiously “optimistic” about her slate. “I had a stomach full of butterflies for two days, and they just kept increasing and increasing,” she admits. “As I walked up the stairs leading into the Dolby, they continued to flutter more and more until I got to the top and looked down behind me. I really had to sort of steady myself as I thought, ‘Wow, this could really happen tonight.'”
Like “the whole audience,” she had accepted that Spectre‘s “Writing’s on the Wall” was probably going to come up short in the best original song category against “Til It Happens to You,” the anthem about sexual assault from The Hunting Ground that was composed by Lady Gaga, who had heavily promoted it, and Diane Warren, a seven-time bridesmaid. The odds were wrong, though, and the Spectre song won. “That was the biggest surprise of the night for us,” Taback confesses. “For me, it was a bigger surprise than Spotlight winning best picture.” She says of Smith, who has taken flack for his acceptance speech, “He’s a lovely human being, and you can feel that honesty in his music.”
Larson’s win for Room was far more expected, and it effectively serves as her coronation as one of the next big stars. Taback says that status is well deserved: “She is one of the loveliest people I’ve met in this town, just full of integrity.”
The category about which she was actually most apprehensive heading into the night was Amy‘s, best documentary feature. “I was nervous because of the amount of money that Netflix spent,” she says, referring to the streaming service’s heavy promotion during the post-nominations period of its two doc feature nominees, What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. “I was nervous that people would forget how much they loved Amy, that somehow the advertising might make them forget about it.” In the end, though, Kapadia, who she calls “an incredibly gifted filmmaker who you’re going to see a lot more from,” was holding a statuette.
And then there was Spotlight. Everyone regarded best picture as a three-way race between The Revenant, The Big Short and Spotlight, each of which had claimed one of the three major guilds’ top prizes — but the heavy consensus was that Revenant, with its field-leading 12 noms and likely wins for best director (which usually goes with a best picture win) and best actor, had the edge. “It was an incredibly competitive year,” Taback grants, but she says she always felt that Spotlight was a perfect fit for the preferential ballot that the Academy employs to determine its best picture. “It just appealed to all audiences,” she said, noting that even if it wasn’t their #1 film, it was often their #2 or #3, which matters with this sort of a voting system. “I don’t think it went past second round,” she adds.
As the 88th Oscar race fades into the past, Taback says she will retain a lot of special memories. “It’s been a great ride,” she muses. “We didn’t feel like we left anything on the table.” While she will soon be taking a well earned vacation, she is — if you can believe it — already thinking about the 89th Oscar race. “I have seen a bunch of films that I believe could definitely follow the same path as Spotlight,” she says, declining to name them. “I can’t wait to get back into it.”
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