How 'La La Land' Can Avoid the Hidden Dangers of Being an Oscar Frontrunner

Illustration by: Jason Raish

The Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling musical, buoyed by a record seven Golden Globes, now occupies the enviable — but treacherous — position as the film to beat come Feb. 26.

She was coasting to victory. Every pundit had predicted a win. And then the election took place and — horror of horrors — she lost.

No, not Hillary Clinton. I'm talking about Lauren Bacall, the unquestioned frontrunner for supporting actress, who at the last minute ceded the Academy Award for 1996's The Mirror Has Two Faces to The English Patient's Juliette Binoche.

That was one of many Oscar upsets. Remember when Russell Crowe seemed like a lock for 2001's A Beautiful Mind? He lost to Denzel Washington for Training Day. Thought Sylvester Stallone was a slam dunk for 2015's Creed? Mark Rylance took the honors for Bridge of Spies.

Even the biggest prize can surprise. Brokeback Mountain (2005) was a near-certainty for best picture until Crash, well, crashed its party. Same with 1998's Saving Private Ryan, whose loss to Shakespeare in Love sent a chorus of gasps rising from the jaded journalists at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

When the Oscar nominations are unveiled Jan. 24, you can bet one or two seemingly secure contenders will head home with their tails between their legs. At this stage four years ago, Ben Affleck was the favorite to win as director for Argo, and then he didn't even get nominated — which, oddly, may have boosted his film in the picture category. Bruce Beresford also was overlooked for 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, another best picture laureate, prompting insiders to quip that the movie must have directed itself.

Awards strategists know how quickly a nominee's fortunes can shift; you can sniff their fear as the pressure ratchets up and as their chances of collecting a six-figure bonus hang in the balance.

None of the strategists is under the microscope as much as the La La Land team, which stretches from Lionsgate to LTLA Communications to Slate PR to 42 West, and that's not counting the high-powered agents who handle the talent. They've been holding their own tactical sessions, knowing clients like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling will double their fees if they pocket an Oscar.

Ever since the Telluride Film Festival in early September, these reps have been guiding their picture past every obstacle, leaving it just a pole vault away from victory. But as any Olympic athlete (or presidential candidate) can tell you, sometimes the gold medal slips out of grasp just when you're most certain it's yours.

Which leaves La La Land with a tricky turn as it rounds the final corner. Its triumph at the Golden Globes — where it not only was named best comedy/musical, but also won a record-breaking seven statuettes — is a mixed blessing, positioning it as the favorite, but one vulnerable to coming across as too much of a sure thing.

Now the film must not only hold on to the support it already has — when fickle voters may take its success for granted and opt for other contenders, especially in other categories than best picture — but also prevent rivals from gaining traction. Here's how:

1. DO NO HARM Crowe snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when he got into a tussle with a TV exec a month before the Oscars. That's the last thing any La La Land strategist wants to see with his or her candidates. First order of business: Keep them out of trouble. Gambling dens, strip clubs, Russian hotel rooms, controversial comments and even silly goofs (Hidden Fences, anyone?) are all verboten, at least until voting closes Feb. 21.

2. HOLD OTHER CONTENDERS AT BAY Fake news may not have as much traction in Hollywood as in Washington, but spinning the news is a whole other thing — and it may be taking place right now. Voters, watch out: Be skeptical of rumors about sexual harassment without seeing the evidence. Remember, whisper campaigns have been in existence as long as the Oscars themselves.

3. FINE-TUNE YOUR MESSAGE A feel-good message may get a movie through the nominating phase, but voters want a substantial reason to pick a winner. Fox Searchlight held a master class in this three years ago with Birdman, launching an ad campaign to remind the Academy that director Alejandro G. Inarritu was a genuine auteur, at a time when genuineness and auteurs were in short supply. You can guarantee it will find an angle that similarly elevates the importance of Jackie and Natalie Portman. La La Land's biggest challenge is to define its importance, a message that started to emerge at the Globes: This movie matters because it celebrates artists and outsiders.

4. ADOPT A CAUSE Lion has partnered with the Charity Network to raise awareness about children at risk. Similarly, Oscar winner The Artist emphasized the jobs it had created for L.A. crewmembers. La La Land might be advised to lend support to a worthy group — perhaps struggling artists or a high school for the performing arts.

5. DIG DEEP FOR VOTERS Is it a coincidence that two La La Land contenders are heading to Paris? Or that the London BAFTAs are a station of the cross for any Oscar aspirant? Now that the Academy has expanded its membership, campaigners need to find the few voters who have remained out of reach. Get these details right and La La Land will have an Oscar sweep. Get them wrong, and it'll be just another coulda-been.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.