Written by Sarah

I noticed something weird during my first winter in Los Angeles. Driving down the 10 freeway I saw a billboard for a movie that had come out six months earlier. “LA is usually little more on top of changing their billboards,” I said (or something along those lines). My friend, who grew up in LA, explained, “That’s for the Oscars. You didn’t think people actually just won those, did you?”


Turns out, no. You don’t just “win” an Oscar. There’s a whole word of machinations and politics and intrigue that goes into getting that little gold man and upon discovering this world, I fell in love with the Oscar race. It’s a perfect combination of Machiavellian maneuvering and Vegas-style gambling. And once you start viewing everything through the lens of the campaign, it changes considerably how you see Hollywood’s biggest night of the year.

The trouble with Oscar campaigning is that it’s not something openly discussed. It isn’t like politics where people announce their campaigns. In fact, there are some rather inscrutable Academy rules about campaigning designed to keep the open discussion of campaigning from happening. (Academy logic gap: people aren’t supposed to campaign for Oscars yet there are a number of eligibility rules related to campaigning for Oscars. How are you legislating against something that isn’t even officially happening?)

Recent years, however, have seen the art of the campaign move into a more public sphere. Past nominees like Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson openly discussed campaigning in 2009 with Mo’Nique on her BET show, The Mo’Nique Show. Important to note that Mo’Nique used the exact word campaigning and no one corrected her. No one said, “Oh it’s not campaigning, it’s publicity”, which is a line I heard, years after my initiation via that LA billboard, from the agent of an Oscar hopeful. In the ten years since I was first introduced to Oscar campaigning, it’s become much more acceptable to openly discuss it.

As for Mo’Nique’s campaign for Best Supporting Actress in 2009/2010 with Precious—of course that was a campaign. It wasn’t even a “non-campaign” as some have dubbed it. Mo’Nique’s issue was that she wanted to be compensated for all the appearances she’d be expected to make (she asks Howard and Henson flat out, “What does it mean financially?”), but once it was made clear to here that no campaigning = no Oscar, she got it together and conducted a very nice campaign which resulted in a win.

And who runs these campaigns? There are publicists who specialize in the art of the campaign. Ronni Chasen was one of the grand old names of Oscar campaigning, running the successful campaign for Driving Miss Daisy that resulted in a Best Picture win in 1989. Before she was murdered in late 2010, Chasen was directing the campaign of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which did land three Golden Globe nominations. Aaron Sorkin also touched on Oscar campaigning in The West Wing, making press secretary CJ’s background that of a Hollywood publicist who specialized in it. She got fired for failing to land any nominations for a bad movie, thus freeing her up to run PR for Bartlet’s presidential campaign (God I loved that show).

Still, Oscar campaigning remains a confusing topic for most as these campaigns largely happen in the background, revealed only to voting members of the Academy or those keen enough to spot a stump speech in the media (I’m looking at you, Michelle Williams). My goal with these posts is to as thoroughly disenchant you with the process as I have been, so that you can see past the publicist-approved bullsh*t to the real reasons celebrities do what they do September through February every year.

You’ll never see the Oscars the same way again.

Part 2 tomorrow: For Your Consideration.