Oscar's Dirty Tricks: Inside the Whisper Campaign Machine (Analysis)

Oscar Whisper Campaign - P 2012

Oscar Whisper Campaign - P 2012

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Can you believe Zero Dark Thirty? The Academy is never going to go for a movie that justifies torture. What are you talking about? Have you seen Django Unchained? No way they can nominate it for best picture -- with all those N-words, they'd never be able to find a clip they could show on TV. Look at Argo, and tell me that one doesn't play fast and loose with the truth. All that jacked-up suspense when they're getting away at the airport -- never happened. Well, if you want to talk about historical accuracy, let's talk Lincoln. Did you know Mary Todd Lincoln never attended debates in the House of Representatives? But there she is in the movie, sitting right there in the visitors gallery.

Welcome to the dark side of awards season. For weeks, filmmakers have been putting their best feet forward, mingling sociably at cocktail parties and patiently answering the same questions over and over again at Q&As. But at the same time, behind the scenes, there's a different conversation taking place.

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Sometimes it originates with campaign consultants in off-the-record chats with reporters and voters in which, instead of talking up their own movies' virtues, they detour into pointing out other pictures' flaws. Sometimes it pops up spontaneously in impromptu post-screening sidewalk debates where partisans square off. (If you want to hear brutal dissections of almost any movie, just loiter on Doheny Drive outside the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills whenever a screening audience gets out.) Sometimes it's created by the media, looking to stoke a hot controversy; case in point, the recent edition of the Drudge Report that carried a photo of Django's Quentin Tarantino along with seven dramatic uses of the N-word.

No matter what a filmmaker does, there's no winning. Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina gets knocked for failing to be faithful to Leo Tolstoy's novel by dropping its realism in favor of a highly theatrical conceit, while Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gets knocked for staying too faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien's book -- and as for Jackson's foray into shooting the film at 48 frames per second, the complaint is that it looks too realistic for a fantasy.

The Academy, whose members have until Jan. 3 to mark their nominations ballots, has tried to discourage the negativity that creeps in around the edges of the awards process. In its official campaign regulations, it advises that advertisements, mailings and even postings on Facebook or Twitter "attempting to promote a particular film or achievement by casting a negative or derogatory light on a competing film or achievement will not be tolerated." The punishment: a one-year suspension of membership for first-time violators. But it's a rule never really enforced.

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Most whisper campaigners are too smart to dis the competition publicly. They're even careful not to commit disparaging thoughts to e-mail, which can easily be forwarded. That was the mistake The Hurt Locker producer Nicolas Chartier made in 2010 when he e-mailed friends urging them to vote for his movie rather than "the $500 million film," a clear reference to the competing Avatar that resulted in the Academy banning him from the Oscar ceremony.

And with nearly everyone engaged in a little bad-mouthing -- to one degree or another -- rare is the industry figure willing to stand up and challenge the negative tactics, as happened in 2002 when A Beautiful Mind was the favorite to win best picture. As voting came down to the wire, the Drudge Report ran a couple of stories accusing the filmmakers of whitewashing the biopic about mathematician John Nash by avoiding allegations that he was homosexual and/or anti-Semitic. Stacey Snider, then chairman of Universal Pictures, chose to take those stories head-on, telling THR at the time, "Lines that should be clear to all of us have recklessly been crossed." And though she declined to finger a suspect, she added, "I have chosen to try to appeal to our competitors on a personal level to urge them not to tumble down that moral slope."

But during the decade since, such scruples have largely evaporated. And with the Internet amplifying every charge and countercharge, nearly every awards hopeful is forced to run the gantlet.

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Not that this season's movies -- particularly the more substantive ones -- don't merit serious discussion of their pros and cons. Even before its official Dec. 19 release, Zero has triggered renewed debate about the efficacy of torture. But the movie's stance is not something that easily lends itself to a 140-character tweet. Similarly, on Dec. 17, The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg posted a 12-point critique of how Steven Spielberg's Lincoln departs from the historical record -- only to admit that after a second viewing, he realized, "Virtually every point that the story and script of Lincoln makes is grounded in historical fact."

Yet, though it might be hard to resist taking potshots at the competition in the heat of awards season, it's also true that negative campaigns rarely work. A Beautiful Mind went on to win best picture, as did 2008's Slumdog Millionaire despite last-minute charges that its Indian child actors were underpaid.

So as far as talking smack goes, maybe it's best to say, "Just bring it on." Then, in the spirit of the season, to quickly add: peace on Earth, good will to men.