And the Oscar for worst campaign system goes to…

  • Daniel Hensel

While no one was looking, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that hosts the Academy Awards, issued a major change in its campaigning policy this month.

Time and time again Hollywood has borrowed from Washington for inspiration (think: House of Cards and The West Wing). With any luck, Washington will return the favor and look to Los Angeles for guidance, and not just entertainment.

Like many Americans, I love watching movies. And for us filmgoers, the biggest event of the year is the Academy Awards. It’s a dizzying celebration of all things cinematic, and every year in February much of the country tunes in to watch the film industry bestow its highest honors on the biggest names in the business.

But prognosticators of the ceremony are sure to have noticed a development that’s been affecting the way the Oscars are decided for the past number of years. Faced with a rapidly expanding field of films and performances to decide between, Oscar voters are increasingly being influenced by parties, lunches and other events set up by film distributors, who are responsible for their films’ Oscar campaigns. At these events, Academy voters can meet and speak with the actors, director(s), writer(s) and below-the-line workers.

This presents a problem because even if there’s no explicit exchange — no one says, “I invited you to this party so you must vote for my film,” — the goodwill surrounding a film generated at events like these has an effect on voters who, whether they have actually seen the film or not, feel that the film must be important enough to warrant such an event.

The ability of the distributing studios to pay for lavish parties is, of course, unevenly distributed. Because the campaigning season costs Hollywood studios anywhere from $100 million to half a billion dollars, the big players get a big advantage. There are the major studios, like 20th Century Fox and Universal, as well as mini-majors, like The Weinstein Company, the founder of which, Harvey Weinstein, practically invented the modern Oscar campaign.

But lost in the shuffle are the smaller studios that don’t have the financial ability to wage an Oscar campaign war in the same way as their larger rivals. A Best Picture win costs about $10 million, not an easily affordable cost for small studios. As a result, the larger studios’ films tend to be in contention for the top prize while the smaller studios’ films only make a few lists of the Academy’s biggest snubs. Last year, for instance, of the eight Best Picture nominees, only one, “Room,” was distributed by an independent studio, A24. The rest were distributed by majors and one by a mini-major.

Meanwhile, the actors, cajoled into awards campaigning as a full-time job, are shepherded from one event to the next. Rebecca Keegan, a writer at the Los Angeles Times, described the schedule as akin to the “Bataan Death March” on a podcast with Vanity Fair’s Mike Hogan. Certainly, these actors would much rather be working on their next project rather than losing a number of months — perhaps one or two film roles or maybe a run on Broadway — on the Oscar campaign trail.

Does this campaigning system sound familiar? A never-ending campaign cycle that begins earlier and earlier each iteration? Studios spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a reasonable shot of winning a merit-based award? Events being hosted by only a handful of well-connected people? Candidates spending countless hours trying to build momentum for a victory rather than actually doing their jobs?

The Oscar campaign system features nearly identical contours as our political elections.

Nowadays, to win an election, candidates have to spend record sums of money — on average $1.6 million for a House seat and $10.4 million for one in the Senate. They’re assisted by a handful of key donors, the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson or Tom Steyer or George Soros, who can become kingmakers with a single check. Candidates with the backing of these donors and super PACs can coast to victory, riding on a wave of ads against their opponents from independent groups that “aren’t coordinating with the candidates” but stuffed with former advisers and staff from the candidates’ former campaign or business. Our politicians, once elected to office, are resigned to their party’s headquarters or fundraisers about four hours a day to call on key donors to contribute to the campaign when the next election rolls around.

And while Hollywood loves to borrow themes from Washington, they have specifically passed on one feature: intransigence in the face of crisis. The Academy is actually taking steps to address their problem, like banning robocalls, lobbying by telephone and mass mailers and placing stringent restrictions on mailed communication. And this month, the Academy unveiled new rules that prevent their members from attending, “any non-screening event, party or dinner that is reasonably perceived to unduly influence members or undermine the integrity of the vote.”

The fix isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start. Unfortunately, the states and Washington seem to have forgotten how to tackle problems, even though the solutions are right in front of our elected officials. Whether it’s contribution limits or disclosure requirements, lobbying reform or citizen-funded elections, overhauling the FEC or limiting the ability of elected officials to spend a majority of their time fundraising, there are plenty of ways to address and resolve this crisis. It’s time for Washington to look to Hollywood for inspiration.