Oscar Antics: Steven Spielberg's Anti-Campaign for 'Lincoln'

Spielberg Lincoln Campaign Trail - H 2012

Spielberg Lincoln Campaign Trail - H 2012

This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On the afternoon of Dec. 19, at about the time Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office was releasing a letter in which she and fellow senators John McCain and Carl Levin blasted Zero Dark Thirty as “grossly inaccurate and misleading” for its depiction of torture, Steven Spielberg was being lionized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid outside the Senate chamber.

The occasion was a special screening of Lincoln, billed as a bipartisan affair with Reid, a Democrat, and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, inviting colleagues to join them to watch the film in the Congressional Auditorium. In addition to Spielberg, the movie was represented by star Daniel Day-Lewis, screenwriter Tony Kushner and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book, Team of Rivals, inspired the film about the passage of the 13th Amendment. “I hope everybody … will go out there and see Lincoln,” enthused Reid, who’d already enjoyed the film at a White House showing hosted by President Obama. “The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.”

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Rival Oscar strategists could almost be heard letting out sighs of resignation. For this year, as awards campaigning ratcheted up to a fever pitch because of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ early Jan. 3 nominations deadline, the team behind Lincoln leapfrogged the competition. While other movies were busy holding cocktail parties and Q&As to attract the attention of voters in the Academy and guilds, the Lincoln forces, while not ignoring the usual Hollywood rituals, were out front commanding a national stage.

The key decision was to hold Lincoln’s release until after the Nov.?6 presidential election. Appearing on 60?Minutes on Oct.?21, in one of the first of many interviews he gave to support the movie’s opening, Spielberg explained: “Had this film come out right in the middle of the election, it would have been a tug of war about who does Lincoln really belong to, the Republicans or the Democrats? The film would have become a political football.” Releasing the film Nov. 9 might largely have been a defensive move, but it also proved a stroke of luck because the movie’s focus on Lincoln’s efforts to steer a bipartisan compromise through Congress played like an antidote to the election’s partisan bickering.

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The media didn’t need prompting to jump on the bandwagon. Time magazine opted for an election-week cover package, “What Would Lincoln Do?,” that included pieces on Spielberg and Day-Lewis. Goodwin’s role was acknowledged during one of her regular appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press. Politicians were just as eager to associate themselves with the film. Along with the White House and the Senate, the House of Representatives held a screening. And on Nov. 19, Spielberg gave a keynote address at Gettysburg National Military Park to commemorate the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

At the same time, Spielberg and DreamWorks made more conventional stops. They first unveiled the film Oct. 8 in what was billed as a sneak preview at the New York Film Festival, a tactic that served Martin Scorsese’s Hugo well in 2011. Adopting a strategy he used to launch his previous film, War Horse, Spielberg then sat for a Q&A, which was beamed to nine participating AMC theaters throughout the U.S. The movie’s premiere took place a few weeks later at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, with supporters like Oprah Winfrey in attendance.

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Lincoln campaigners have attended to little details, too. They gave a coffee-table book, Lincoln: A Cinematic and Historical Companion, to members of the media. Spielberg sent individual thank-you letters to members of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which gave the movie a record 13 nominations for its Critics’ Choice Awards, which take place Jan. 10. And DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider stopped by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Christmas party to shake a few hands.

But while Lincoln has executed a near-perfect campaign and become a box-office hit with $112 million domestically and counting, it still must fend off challenges from such movies as Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables and Argo. And there is at least one scenario that should keep Lincoln strategists up at night: Fourteen years ago, Saving Private Ryan also looked like a prohibitive favorite. At the Oscars, it won five awards, including best director honors for Spielberg. But then, when the best picture envelope was opened, the Oscar went to Shakespeare in Love in an upset victory engineered by Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein is expected back this year with Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook. And were Academy voters to decide, as happened with Shakespeare, to go for a lighter movie, then Playbook would be the beneficiary — and that would be one bit of history Spielberg certainly doesn’t want to repeat.