Emmys 2012: Can an Actor Who Doesn't Campaign Still Win the Award?

2012-30 FEA Emmy Peril Illustration H

Experts weigh in on what happens when a nominee refuses to play the game — and whether silence can still be golden.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it's time to toot their own horns on the Emmy campaign trail, even healthy egos often feel like piping down. After he got seven Emmy nominations July 19, Louis C.K. said fighting for prizes should be "more of an athletics thing." Then he ducked the spotlight. "He appears to be hiding in the witness protection program," says Tom O'Neil, editor of the awards site GoldDerby.

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As the front-runner, maybe C.K. can get away with being campaign-shy. But it's risky. "You don't get anything in Hollywood unless you ask for it," says O'Neil. "It's been 39 years since a film [American Graffiti] got nominated for best picture without an official campaign, and things aren't much different at the Emmys."

Emmy campaigning has become -- no kidding -- "widespread and aggressive," says TV Academy senior vp awards John Leverence. Dolled-up and voluble, quadruple nominee Lena Dunham has done events and interviews that helped introduce her to voters. Three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston went off season at a sold-out Feb. 23 "Evening With Breaking Bad" at the academy. "It was early and a nomination was a given," says THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg, "but he was already positioning himself for phase two." Amy Poehler, less fond of campaigning than her character Leslie Knope, nonetheless did a blizzard of interviews and a March 6 "Evening With Parks and Recreation."

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This year's most clearly effective campaign was the Grammys' blitzkrieg to crack the Special Class Emmy category long dominated by the Tonys and Oscars. At a TV Academy screening June 11, producers showed a documentary on how tough it was to revise the broadcast to honor Whitney Houston, who died the day before. "Bingo -- they got nominated," says O'Neil.

By contrast, Steve Carell, already in the midst of a film career during The Office, doubts the value of campaigning. "Campaign for an award?" Carell told THR in August. "Either you win because people think you deserve it or you don't." This attitude could explain his 10 noms and zero wins. It also might explain why five-time nominee Steve Buscemi has never won and why six-timer Hugh Laurie was snubbed this year. Both  traditionally have campaigned little.

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"This race isn't for the shy or the modest," says film critic and Yahoo Movies contributing editor Thelma Adams. Like many experts, Adams thinks Laurie could have won in his last season of House, as Kyle Chandler did for Friday Night Lights in 2011, if he'd campaigned harder. Experts also believe Dexter's relatively press-shy Michael C. Hall would be likelier to win on this, his sixth acting nom, if he stepped up and campaigned more -- say, as ably as master press whisperer and 2010 Dexter guest Emmy winner John Lithgow.

Still, some big or prestigious stars can be campaign-shy and win. "The shy shall inherit the Emmy," claims NBC Entertainment executive vp communications Richard Licata, formerly executive vp corporate communications at Showtime. "Shy-sters with whom my paths have crossed who stayed mum and got the gold include Michael Chiklis, Tony Shalhoub, Toni Collette, Edie Falco and Blythe Danner. I'm not convinced beating the drum trumps a voter watching a powerful performance."

Yet all had brilliant drumbeating by Licata -- who, illogically, successfully entered Falco for comedy instead of drama for Nurse Jackie. Under Showtime's new PR regime, Falco did a few key interviews this season, but she is unlikely to repeat her 2010 win. Says O'Neil, whose nomination predictions were 71 percent accurate, "The winner will probably be one of those happily tub-thumping: Zooey Deschanel, Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Dunham."

Another twist that explains campaign reticence: Unlike Oscar hopefuls, Emmy contenders risk upstaging their ensembles. "They're reluctant to be singled out and experience a backlash on the set," says Adams. When Louis C.K. got noms without a series mention to share with his crew, he told THR, "This just feels selfish."

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Campaigning also simply can play against type. "Any hard sell would be the exact opposite of Louis C.K.'s well-deserved image as a brilliant original who defies the rules," says pundit Caryn James. "Doesn't someone like that have more to lose than to gain by all-out campaigning?" James advocates clever anti-campaigning, even post-voting, as when Poehler led a nominees' invasion of the stage to put a tiara on winner Melissa McCarthy. "That gentle mocking of the whole awards circus -- even while competing in it -- seems to be the cool attitude today. In the long run, it may be more important to play to their fans than to Emmy voters."

Nonsense, says one influential campaign consultant. "Meryl Streep wins two Oscars, is nominated 17 times over 33 years, never wins since 1983, finally admits last year I want it so badly, I'll tell you I do! And voila, she wins." He advises Emmy hopefuls to confess they want to win, then go for it: "Admit it. You'll feel better in the morning."