Oscar Coaches Up the Ante in the TV Fight

Major campaigns for Emmy-contending shows and talent are being mounted by an elite cadre of consultants who are lending their priceless — and pricey — expertise for the gold rush.
Courtesy of Michael Kirkham

Over the course of the 21st century, there has been a mass exodus of talent from film to TV — actors, directors, producers, below-the-liners. As they've made this move, they've expected their excellent TV work to be promoted in the same way that excellent film work long has been: with a full-fledged awards campaign. And that is one of the primary reasons why awards consultants — publicists and strategists who specialize in these sorts of campaigns — increasingly have become crossover artists, too.

Awards consultants don't like to talk about their work for fear that they might come off as seeking credit — which the studios and networks that employ them would rather go directly to a nominated film or show — or, that in receiving such credit, observers might question the propriety of their role. But the reality is that such consultants can make a major difference.

Each Oscar season, there are only a couple dozen movies that voters need to see in order to make a fair judgment — still not an easy feat. Awards consultants can't persuade Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members to vote for a film they don't like, but they can persuade them to at least watch (read: consider) a film — often through carefully constructed cocktail parties, dinners, receptions, Q&As and all types of pseudo-events usually tied to a screening of the film. These events are essential because people don't vote for things they haven't seen.

In the world of television, the proliferation of shows on broadcast, cable and now streaming outlets has exploded into an ungodly amount of content for TV Academy voters to consume — Oscar voters have a cakewalk in comparison — making the skills of an awards consultant that much more essential and in-demand during Emmy season.

The first consultant to straddle both the film and TV worlds was Murray Weissman, who died in December at age 90. Weissman spent decades working on Oscar campaigns, including those of seven best picture winners between 1974 and 2006. In 2007, the fledgling cable network AMC, then mostly known for airing old movies, retained the veteran to mount an Emmy campaign for its first original miniseries, Broken Trail. The show ended up winning four Emmys, including best miniseries. The following year, Weissman guided AMC's rookie shows Mad Men (outstanding drama series) and Breaking Bad (lead actor in a drama series) to major wins Says Rick Markovitz, Weissman's partner at Weissman/Markovitz Communications, "Other networks saw how Emmy recognition transformed the perception of AMC, and they wanted some of the same pixie dust."

Adds John Solberg, vp media relations at FX: "Murray was the Yoda of awards campaigning. I was fascinated by his wealth of knowledge. Most of the standard procedures of Emmy campaigning were already in place, but he brought to the table strategic thinking and ideas beyond the concentrated two- or three-month window."

While some in the film industry still look down at television work, awards consultants — many of whom long have specialized in Oscar campaigning — don't. "Follow the money," says one. "There's a lot of money in TV. Plus the [Oscar and Emmy] seasons don't really overlap, and inventive ideas are welcomed in TV."

Moreover, while Oscar campaigning is heavily regulated, at least post-nominations, Emmy campaigning has far fewer restrictions. For example, in 2013, Netflix representatives went to voter-heavy neighborhoods and offered Starbucks gift cards or Red Cross donations to residents in return for placing an election-style House of Cards lawn sign in their front yards during the voting period.

This year, many of the best awards consultants that Hollywood is used to seeing behind the scenes at Oscar events are in the Emmy race. Among them: Lisa Taback, who guided the triumphant Spotlight and Room campaigns just months ago and is handling NBC and NBC Studios' entire slate (Shades of Blue, The Carmichael Show, Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, among others) as well as clients Marta Kauffman (Grace and Frankie) and Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Mom). Lea Yardum, a Weissman protege and Paramount's in-house consultant who's coming off The Big Short's Oscar push, is consulting on Fox's Grease: Live!, which was produced by Paramount Television. And Michele Robertson, on the heels of Mad Max: Fury Road's field-leading six Oscar wins, is applying her experience working with client Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) to Emmy contenders Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Melissa Rosenberg (Jessica Jones).

"[Campaigning] has become a massive ground war. It's grown somewhat out of control," says FX's Solberg, who continues to work with Weissman/Markovitz. He adds with a laugh: "I still hear Murray's voice in my head. I can hear him now: 'Look at that beautiful billboard on Sunset!' "

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