Governors Awards: By Honoring Marvin Levy, Academy Recognizes Its Debt to PR Experts

THR's awards columnist Scott Feinberg profiles the man who on Sunday night will become the first publicist ever to receive an honorary Oscar.
Marvin Levy

No industry has ever created a more effective public relations and marketing device for itself than Hollywood did when — with the financial backing of the studio chiefs and the help of PR and marketing specialists — it created the Academy Awards some 90 years ago.

People the world over don't simultaneously tune in to find out what Detroit deems the year's best cars or Las Vegas views as the year's best casinos or Washington regards as the year's top politicians. But, even in years when a relatively small portion of the public has seen the top Oscar nominees, a decreasing but still massive number of people do want to know what Hollywood regards as the year's best films and filmmakers.

That is because for more than a century now, Hollywood studios and filmmakers have created movies that have captured our imaginations — and also because PR and marketing specialists (also known over the years as press agents, flacks and far less flattering terms) have so effectively convinced people to care about the films.

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It is the job of PR and marketing specialists to shine the spotlight on others, so they have tended to operate in the shadows, but make no mistake about it: They have been a part of the business for as long as anyone.

You may not know their names, but you should. I'm talking about people like Howard Strickling, who, on top of his day-to-day duties running MGM's giant PR operation for a half-century (back before talent had personal publicists and agents catering to their every need), also coordinated many of the early Oscar ceremonies (there has been a PR branch of the Academy since 1941); Harry Brand, who was Fox's version of Strickling; Russell Birdwell, who, working for independent producers like David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes, promoted everything from the search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara to Jane Russell's bust; Henry Rogers and Warren Cowan, who, when the studio system began to collapse, helped to usher in the era of personal publicity (Rogers & Cowan remains a top firm long after its namesakes' deaths) and Oscar campaigns (Rogers mounted the first, for Mildred Pierce's Joan Crawford, in 1945); Renee Furst, an earth mother-like nurturer of art house films and filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s; Pat Kingsley, a brawler who, for a time, shifted the power-dynamic between publicists and the press; and both Ashley Boone, the first black president of a studio (he presided over Fox's marketing and distribution department during the rollout of Star Wars), and his kid sister Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a top marketing exec in her own right who became the first black president of the Academy, a job previously held by fellow PR branch members Richard Kahn and Sid Ganis.

All of which is to say it is rather remarkable that it has taken until 2018 for the Academy to do what it will do on Sunday night: honor a PR and/or marketing specialist — Marvin Levy, Steven Spielberg's longtime publicist — with an honorary Oscar.

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Over the course of his still very much ongoing career in public relations, which currently spans 63 years, Marvin Levy was never the loudest or flashiest guy in the business. He wasn't thanked in the most Oscar speeches. And, he would be the first to admit, he didn't do anything that particularly changed the game. But having interacted with Levy throughout my entire career and interviewed him at his office on the Universal lot in 2014 for a PR-related book that I am still trying to complete, I think the Academy could not have chosen a more perfect ceiling-breaker than Levy, who has practiced virtually every aspect of his profession — and been a credit to it every step of the way.

After graduating from NYU in 1949, Levy remained in New York to start his career. He hoped to find work in advertising, but came up empty and turned to radio, initially taking a job as a researcher and question-writer for a quiz show, and later going to work for "Tex and Jinx," a married couple who popularized the talk show format on radio and TV. When Tex and Jinx experienced a cutback in programming, they had to let Levy go, but not before writing him a glowing letter of recommendation that landed him a position in what was then called the "advertising, publicity and exploitation" department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's New York office. ("Can you imagine today if anyone said, 'I'm the vice president of exploitation?" Levy cracked to me.) His job was to secure New York-area radio and TV promotional opportunities when MGM clients came to town to tout their films; among the campaigns he worked on were 1958's Gigi and 1959's Ben-Hur, both of which went on to win best picture Oscars. His boss was Howard Dietz, the East Coast counterpart of Strickling, who Levy also remembers seeing in the New York office every once in a while (hence, there is a direct link from the man who was arguably the industry's first PR titan to Levy).

As Levy's career was taking off, however, the Golden Age of Hollywood was coming to an end, and Levy, frustrated at the lack of opportunities for advancement within MGM, left the studio in 1962. He was hired by Blowitz, Thomas and Canton, one of the top PR firms for films made outside of the studio system, and for them he worked on the publicity and awards campaigns for some of the finest examples of such films, including 1968's Charly (Cliff Robertson won the best actor Oscar), 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They (Gig Young won the best supporting actor Oscar) and 1970's Lovers and Other Strangers (which won a best original song Oscar), all three of which were distributed by the Cinerama Releasing Corporation. When BTC broke up, Levy got a job working directly for Cinerama, and in July 1974, the president of the company asked him to move, with his young family, out west. They did so, but nine months later Levy was informed that the company was merging with American International Pictures, which would henceforth handle distribution and promotion of their films. The company would pay to move him and his family back to New York, if he liked, but either way he would soon be out of a job.

The family decided to remain out west, and four days later Levy was hired by Columbia Pictures. There, he quickly earned a series of promotions up the hierarchy of its publicity and advertising department, working on major movies (1976's Taxi Driver, 1977's The Deep and 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer) and with a host of top talent (including the famously exacting Warren Beatty). One production to which he was assigned, in 1977, was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg's first film since Jaws put him on the map. The two hit it off, and over the ensuing years Spielberg came to increasingly trust and rely upon the counsel of Levy (Levy eventually became known in the business as "the Steven whisperer"), maybe even growing to regard Levy, who is 18 years older than himself, as something of a father-figure (Spielberg was estranged for many years from his own father, who is now 101).

In 1982 — by which point Spielberg had made Raiders of the Lost Ark and was the hottest director in Hollywood — the filmmaker asked Levy to exclusively represent him under the auspices of Spielberg's production company Amblin. Over the next 12 years, Levy oversaw the publicity and marketing for the Amblin films that Spielberg directed (including 1982's E.T., 1985's The Color Purple and 1993's Jurassic Park and Schindler's List) and produced (1985's Back to the Future and The Goonies). Then, in 1994, Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen established DreamWorks, Hollywood's first new studio in 60 years, and Levy began working on behalf of the trio of alpha personalities, which could have broken a lesser man. Katzenberg and Geffen have since moved on to other ventures, but Spielberg has continued to direct and produce a remarkably steady flow of high-quality films, almost exclusively under the DreamWorks label, and always with Levy by his side.

Levy has seen a lot during his tenure as Spielberg's Yoda-like consigliere. He lived through the years when people dismissed Spielberg as an overgrown kid who couldn't make a serious movie. Then, 25 years ago, Levy helped to convince masses of people to see a three-hour black-and-white movie about the Holocaust — Schindler's List, which went on to win best picture and best director Oscars — and that problem went away. Twenty years ago, while promoting arguably the greatest movie about the greatest generation, Saving Private Ryan, Levy confronted the unprecedented aggressiveness of Harvey Weinstein's Miramax, which was trying to bulldoze its way to a best picture Oscar for Shakespeare in Love; on Oscar night, Spielberg again won best director, but Shakespeare beat Ryan in what is still considered the greatest upset in Oscar history. (Harrison Ford had been recruited to present best picture, with the expectation that he would hand an Oscar to his Raiders director, not to Weinstein.) "Obviously, it was the most personal one for us," Levy told me, recalling a downer of an evening. But Team Spielberg doesn't get angry; it gets even. Levy was on the job as DreamWorks films — namely, American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind — won best picture honors in each of the next three years. He was still there as Spielberg continued to rack up major credits and Oscar recognition well into the 21st century with pics like 2005's Munich, 2011's War Horse, 2012's Lincoln, 2015's Bridge of Spies and 2017's The Post. And in 2018, at the age of 90 (his big birthday was Friday), he's still going in to work every day, with no plans to retire. "Somebody once came up with a line that I always joke about," he told me. "A wife says to her husband, 'I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.' And I know exactly what that means."

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One might assume that exclusively representing the man who many regard as the greatest living filmmaker is an easy job, merely requiring someone with a pulse to sit back and go through the motions — but one would be wrong. Neither Spielberg nor Levy would ever say as much, but the deck is, in a way, stacked against Spielberg: Unlike almost every other filmmaker, each of his new movies is evaluated not on its own merits, but in comparison to his past work, which isn't exactly fair considering he set the bar so high in the past. (It's almost a reverse-curve form of grading; "I probably spend more time X-ing out hyperbole than doing anything else just for that reason," Levy acknowledged to me.) It is a testament to Spielberg's enduring abilities as a filmmaker, first and foremost, but also to Levy's abilities to shape expectations and frame results for each new film, that people continue to love Spielberg's work. Red carpets and awards dinners occupy only a small percentage of either man's time; far more of Levy’s time is spent doing the grunt work — in tandem with studio PR and marketing partners — of crafting production notes, press kits, one-sheets and positioning statements, devising strategies for advertising and marketing, and remembering, while plotting Spielberg's media appearances, that a little of his client can go a long way, whereas too much can actually backfire.

It is also no small thing that Levy, over his seven decades in a rapidly changing business, has been able to adapt to whatever is thrown at him. He told me, "It used to be that if you got Life magazine and a What's My Line? and The Ed Sullivan Show and a New York Times piece and a few other things, everybody knew your movie. You'd have TV shows watched by 50, 60, 70 million people every week. Now you can't get that. What is our audience today? It's changing. It's really interesting. And it gets down to: How do you find and then motivate those people?" Part of the way is knowing how to stay in touch with modern times and technology. The President of the United States, who is nearly two decades younger than Levy, still can't send an email, but Levy navigates the computer and internet like a kid.

But, as anyone who knows Levy will tell you, the most impressive thing about him is his character — he is a soft-spoken gentleman and a consummate professional. If any PR or marketing specialist could get away with being dismissive or rude to journalists, it's Levy, who represents a guy everyone else wants a piece of — Levy is constantly bombarded with requests — but who needs everyone else the least. But take it from me, a journalist who has dealt with Levy a lot over the years, sometimes getting what I was seeking and other times not: Every request he is sent gets a response that is timely, polite and fair. As a journalist, I can ask for nothing more.

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Levy, who has been married to his wife Carol since May 25, 1952, and is the father of two adult sons, Don and Doug, has never sought recognition, but he has received some before. In 1994, the publicists' guild, officially known as Local 600 International Cinematographers Guild, presented him with its highest honor, the Les Mason Award. (Don, who followed in his father's footsteps into the PR profession, received the same accolade seven years earlier!) But an Oscar is a whole different ballgame.

At a time when so many of the guardians of old Hollywood are leaving us — in the past decade alone, we lost the legendary PR and/or marketing legends Lois Smith, Dale Olson, Walter Seltzer, Esme Chandlee, Julian Myers, Murray Weissman, Henri Bollinger, Chuck Panama, Arthur Manson and Paul Bloch, among others — it is heartening to see the Academy take a moment to celebrate one of them. (Levy is also one of the Academy's own — he has been has been a member of the PR branch since 1969 and represented it on the organization's board of governors for 23 years, a pedestal through which he not only promoted others for honorary Oscars, but acted as one of Hollywood's biggest boosters and cheerleaders.) And, in honoring Levy, specifically, the Academy pays overdue tribute to all of this town's PR and marketing specialists, past and present, who, while hovering behind the scenes, have played an instrumental role in making this business what it is today.