Oscars: How Last-Minute Surges Are Upending the Race

Matt Collins

The field is shifting as once-guaranteed contenders ('Black Mass,' 'Steve Jobs') and upstarts ('Creed,' 'The Big Short') used late December for a down-to-the-wire awards-campaign spending spree: "This is sacred time, the holidays."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Just a few weeks ago, it all seemed so clear: Warner Bros. had a surefire Oscar contender in Black Mass; Universal had a guaranteed winner in Steve Jobs; Focus Features was destined to reap multiple nominations for The Danish Girl; and Paramount, well, it had chosen to sit out the race — a year after doing an about-turn when late entry Selma bumped off Interstellar as the studio's main contender.

How quickly things change. In a flurry of activity just before the Christmas holiday, a slew of fresh releases knocked the wind out of the established favorites, drawing kudos from awards groups and forcing strategists to recalibrate their campaigns.

Sensing an opening, Paramount brought forward the release of its financial comedy The Big Short; Warners gave an added push to Sylvester Stallone for reprising the role of Rocky Balboa in Creed while also beefing up the attention it was paying to Mad Max: Fury Road; and Disney prepared to give an awards shove to the biggest kahuna of them all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, after it debuted to a largely enthusiastic reception — and perhaps also sensing that Bridge of Spies had lost some Oscar momentum.

"It's shifted so much — it's crazy," says one veteran awards campaigner, who, like others interviewed, declined to be named. "Who would have predicted it? It's forcing us to spend on everything — radio, receptions, TV."

How much extra the studios collectively are lavishing is unclear, but one marketing executive estimates that the total sum of added expenditures in the narrow window from mid-December to early January will top out at less than $2 million.

"The ads in the L.A. Times and the trades and the online sites are already budgeted; there might be a few more, and some more radio — but a lot of that has been settled," he notes. "Where you're seeing more money being spent is on lodging and transportation and parties, which range from $25,000 to $100,000-plus."

Having to put such events together is taxing even for the most die-hard awards campaigners, who might have hoped to slack off before Christmas but instead found themselves working overtime, promoting new pictures and putting the spotlight back on others that no longer seemed quite so safe.

Fox hosted a Sunset Tower reception for The Martian in late December, a much-needed boost for the film, which remains a strong contender for best picture and best actor Matt Damon. On Dec. 20, Focus Features held a brunch for Danish Girl's Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hooper to give one last nudge to a movie that had dropped off several pundits' most likely lists — and also to make up for the fact that Redmayne and co-star Alicia Vikander have been absent from the campaign trail because of filming commitments.

As for Disney, it took over a bunch of Burbank theaters just before Christmas solely to screen The Force Awakens for its employees — a few of whom, conveniently, happen to be Academy members.

"They were all campaigning well into territory that nobody ever considered," says another consultant, speaking of the Christmas time frame. "This is sacred time, the holidays."

Nor does it look as if the early January campaigning will be any lighter. One event organizer had seven separate events to stage in New York in the first week of January alone. Major names such as Tom Brokaw and Michael Douglas have been enlisted to host receptions for such pictures as Spotlight and Trumbo. (Douglas has a special connection to Trumbo since his dad, Kirk, is a character in the film.) And Christopher Nolan — who, like fellow director Quentin Tarantino, is a big proponent of shooting on film — joined with Jamie Foxx and others to host a dinner for Tarantino and The Hateful Eight.

The question is: Will any of this really make a difference?

Yes, to some degree. Insiders remember that other late entries have come from nowhere to win, most notably Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. The drama wasn't even mentioned in most pundits' estimates before it opened Dec. 15, 2004, but it went on to win the best picture Oscar.

At the same time, voters may blanch before a flood of competitors, and need all the prodding they can get to put a particular film at the top of their pile. But, says one of the consultants, all the last-minute events aren't necessarily reaching the larger pool of Academy voters.

"It's the same 200 people going to all the events," he gripes. And that doesn't bode well for campaigners hoping to spend their way to a victory. "Sure, they'll eat your food and drink your booze and tell you how great your film is. But that doesn't mean they'll vote for it."