4:13pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Oscars: Awards Strategist Lisa Taback Has a Very Personal Stake in This Year's Race
Rayka Zehtabchi's Period. End of Sentence is one of 10 titles chosen by the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — from a list of 104 — for this season's best documentary short Oscar shortlist, from which five nominees will be drawn and announced on Jan. 22. But it has has a different sort of pedigree than any of the others on the list.
A 25-minute film about women's access to sanitary pads, or lack thereof, in rural India, it is the brainchild of an English teacher at the Los Angeles private high school Oakwood School, Melissa Berton, and several of her former students, including Claire Sliney — and it counts among its four producers Lisa Taback, who is not only Sliney's mother, but also one of Hollywood's leading awards strategists.
And so Taback, who for decades has helped to deliver Oscar nominations and wins for others — first as an employee of Miramax and The Weinstein Co., then as an independent consultant and currently as Netflix's in-house awards counsel — is now but one step from becoming an Oscar nominee herself.
It all began in 2013, when, during spring break, Berton and Taback accompanied six of Berton's female students to the United Nations, where the students served as delegates to the Commission on the Status of Women and learned that many of their contemporaries in developing countries drop out of school once they begin to menstruate because they do not have access to sanitary pads. Inspired and seeking to raise awareness of these sorts of issues, the students formed the non-profit The Pad Project and, at Berton's urging, resolved to make a documentary as well.
Over a period of five years, the students raised financing through bake sales, yogathons and Kickstarter campaigns, which, even as they went off to college, enabled them to hire Zehtabchi — a recent USC film school graduate and a young woman only a few years older than them — to serve as the film's director. Berton and Taback accompanied Zehtabchi to India to shoot the pic, and then postproduction was completed in Los Angeles. Taback never notified her media contacts about Period or campaigned for it in the way she did for, say, the Netflix documentary short, Zion, which also made the shortlist — in fact, even this awards columnist was totally surprised to learn, after the shortlist was announced, that Taback was associated with one of the titles on it. "I would say, 'We should go to that festival,' but I never, ever pulled a lever, because I didn't need to," Taback says. "I didn't want my involvement in the industry to overshadow the content, because what it's about is so important. And also I thought the filmmaking was so good that it could get there without help."
If Period — which has been awarded prizes from festival juries (Traverse City; Savannah; Cleveland International; honorable mention from AFI Fest) and audiences (AFI Fest, Traverse City) — winds up among the five best documentary short Oscar nominees, then, per Academy rules, its individual nominees will include its director and no more than one other person, a producer. At that point, a decision will have to be made about which of Zehtabchi's fellow producers — Taback, Berton or Garrett Schiff — should share in the nomination.
If Taback were to become the other nominee, she would join two very exclusive clubs — not only that of Oscar nominees, generally, but also that of publicists who have received recognition from the Academy. Pete Smith, a beloved MGM publicist in that studio's early days, left PR to make short films — which came to be known as "Pete Smith Specialties" — at a time when shorts were widely screened before features in theaters, and for these he received an honorary Oscar in 1954. And then, last November, the Academy made Marvin Levy, Steven Spielberg's longtime publicist, the first member of the PR profession ever to receive an honorary Oscar.
Taback, however, insists that if the film is nominated, she would like Berton — who she calls "a brilliant writer" of prose, poetry and screenplays — to join Zehtabchi as a nominee. "If we're lucky enough to be one of the five, and if we're lucky enough to be the winner, I don't need to go up on stage," she emphasizes. "This is the story of a teacher and a young director who connected with girls on the other side of the world. Those are the people who need to go up on stage."
Berton tells THR, "As an English teacher, I knew next-to-nothing about producing a film, but my unstoppable students inspired me every step of the way — and as they brought on their multi-talented parents to help, the momentum just kept growing. I began to feel this film may actually become a reality. I still remember the day, four years ago, when I beheld 'Oscar Whisperer' Lisa Taback explain to a group of rapt 15-year-olds, including her own daughter, how to create a one-sheet and a successful campaign on Kickstarter." The rest is history.
Since Period was shortlisted, Taback says, its filmmakers have received distribution offers from several premium cable and streaming services and are currently weighing offers. And since Oscar nomination voting began, it has been getting a concerted push — Jack Black, an Oakwood parent, posted a tweet calling it "the best documentary short of the year," and Sophia Bush and the Indian-American actress Poorna Jagannathan will host a screening and reception for it Friday night at Neuehouse. But regardless of any recognition that already has — or that may still — come Period's way, Taback insists that the highlight of the experience has been working with Sliney, who is now an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is so much more gratifying than anything else I've ever worked on because it's with my daughter," she says. "It's helping my daughter's dream become a reality, and it's for all the right reasons."