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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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The Anatomy of Award Shows, Why They Matter… Or Don’t

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

With Award Season around the corner, here’s everything you need to know about how these shows work. Maybe not everything, but from November to February in the US, this is the time of year when everyone in Hollywood switches into high gear. 

The Academy Awards is the sine qua non of any future classic movie, driven by approximately 6000 industry voting members who vote in 25 categories.

Last year, host Ellen Degeneres “broke” Twitter with a star-studded selfie, which just adds to the storied mystique of the show.

That history includes Marlon Brando’s 1973 public refusal of the award on behalf of Native American’s to the 1939 groundbreaking win for African American actress Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind), nearly 30 years before the country had even imagined a Civil Rights movement.

Established in 1929, at the cusp of Talkies, Silent Films made it into the first Award ceremony. MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons came up with the design of a ‘knight’ perched on a film reel. Emil Jannings received the first award presented in May 1929 for “The Way of All Flesh.”  The actual name of the award is “Academy Award of Merit,” although the bronze statuettes were officially nicknamed and later trademarked, “Oscar” when either Bette Davis or Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, according to insiders, named the golden guy in 1939. The Oscar is 13-1/2” tall and weighs roughly 8-1/2 lbs. The original film reel base featured five spokes for the important Academy branches: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers.

Oscars were made of painted plaster during World War II, for about three years running due to shortages; later bronze was replaced by Brittania (a metal alloy like Pewter) and plated in copper, nickel, and eventually a 24-carat-gold finish.

Nowadays, the actual Oscar award is reported to cost $500 to manufacture. 

None of these details are relevant to the true power of this award - to bolster box office receipts, make or break actor’s careers, launch writers, but mostly to put the bang in BO. In other words, it’s about the money.

Figures of record seem to estimate an Oscar win to add at least 21.7% to box office totals, according to Business Insider, which notes that actor’s salaries also get about a 20% bump in their quote. (A quote is what they can be billed at, budgeted for, in terms of production costs.)

But theatrical release is just Step One for any given movie. 

Marketing films now includes revenue possibilities for DVD, streaming/downloads, as well as cable TV licensing. If a picture tests strong enough to be an awards contender, then the publicity machines kick into action. Some prefer viral whisper campaigns online, a la Blair Witch Project-style; some go the way of Facebook crowd-herding for awareness; but, there is a method to the whole process.

Awards campaigns begin in the press, meaning journalists and insider voters are dunned with movie "merch" or other swag, press releases, trade full throttle ads (Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline) and lobbied relentlessly. Building-high murals adorn Sunset Boulevard as a ritual beginning to the lobbying among the majors.

During the 2013 Awards Season, when the battles became literally a detriment to the movies in contention, even a gifted filmmaker like David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) was accused of “coming to the opening of an envelope.” Although he had won Best Picture for Silver Linings the year before, plus an armful of awards, the lesson is that one can unintentionally overexpose their film to insiders.

By February, if voters have been force-fed an Oscar campaign since November of the year before, there will be a backlash. And a backlash when a bevy of movies choose late December release dates, a common tactic among the studios. The logic is voters will have forgotten earlier films, but will pay last minute attention to the films daring enough to wait till the end of the voting window, which is about the third week of December. 

Thus the delicate balance between lobbying, lobbying like expert Schmoozeman George Clooney, and lobbing publicity bombs becomes a matter of intuition for most studios, indies, and publicists. Schmoozeman Clooney literally charmed his pal Ben Affleck’s ARGO to Best Picture, insiders say. And his political clout with the Golden Globes as well as the Oscar folks is legendary, the light touch no one seems to mind in spite of its ability to eclipse anything not Clooney-related or even Clooney-hated.

Lobbying has damaged the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes so badly over the years, that a mid-80’s scandal with Pia Zadora still makes cocktail party talk during nearly every Awards Season. Founded in 1947, HFPA’s Golden Globes honor film and television, and are decided on by a bevy of international journalists - none of whom are filmmakers usually. It is not a peer award ceremony so much as a compendium of competing opinions from many countries represented. Ultimately a handful of insiders will pick the winners, thus the effects of lobbying have a clear target.

In the past few years, the legal action between HFPA vs dick clark productions following Dick Clark’s death, has tainted the ceremony. HFPA wants more revenues from the NBC license deal, dc productions thinks they earn enough money. Either way, the Golden Globes were recently sold to a group of Hollywood insiders, led by former studio head Peter Guber. For many the checkered history of the Globes is a wait-and-see now, but few think the reputation of these awards could get any worse - based on how they have “kicked out” members, internecine battles, and public airing of their own dirty laundry.

Yet one of the most fascinating and original aspects of the Golden Globes since 1963 is the famous offspring parade, Miss or Mr. Golden Globe, the children of stars who serve as Honorary mascots for each year’s show. 

Highlights from the famous progeny nod are: Elly May Clampett from "The Beverly Hillbillies," Donna Douglas (1963), Linda Evans (1964), Anne Archer (1971), Melanie Griffith (1975), Elizabeth Stack (1978, daughter of Robert Stack), Laura Dern (1982), Lisabeth Shatner (1985, daughter of William Shatner), Candace Savalas (1987, daughter of Telly Savalas), Joely Fisher (1992), Alexandrea Martin (1994, daughter of Whoppi Goldberg), John Clark Gable (1995), Freddie Prinze Jr. (1996), Clementine Ford (1998, Cybil Sherperd’s daughter), Lily Costner (2004), Kathryn Eastwood (2005), Dakota Johnson (2006), Lorraine Nicholson (2007), Rumer Willis (2008), Francesca Eastwood (2013) and the strange choices like Haley Giraldo (2002), who is Pat Benatar’s daughter.

Awards season includes the trade/guild shows. Usually in this order time wise beginning in January. There’s the Producers Guild of America Awards, Directors Guile of America Awards, Writers Guild of America Awards, Art Directors Guild Awards, ACE Eddie Awards (film editors), and the Costume Designers Guild Awards as late as the end of February. 

Many of the trade awards are statues-with-no-names, like the WGA bird-wing-looking statuette that is sadly nameless still despite writer outcry each year. These people are writers, after all, and naming characters and things is part of their job.

Each insider trade/guild award honors their own from within. If you are based outside the US and not a WGA member, no matter how great your writing is, you won’t win. Basically all of these insider shows are designed to build momentum for the Oscars, where their members usually are feted in hopes of swaying any last minute voters. For example, last year Alfonso Cuarón won the DGA awards, which turned out to be a precursor for the Oscars. 

The Film Independent Spirit Awards were established in 1984 as the “FINDIE” awards (ugh, based on Friends of Independent Films), this is the only show to literally coattail the Oscars. The logic here is that all the actors are in town anyway, so why not catch them for this party the night before. The Spirit’s former top executive Dawn Hudson crossed over to a big job at the Academy a few years ago, which proved that this strategy works. She did so well, the Academy called on her, in other words.

Although the Independent Spirit Awards (which also hosts Los Angeles Film Festival) are supposed to honor the antithesis of “Hollywood” movies, star talent is star talent. Movie stars are the lifeblood of any show being broadcast.

There’s also the People’s Choice Awards, Young Hollywood Awards, Broadcast Critics Awards, and cross-over shows like MTV VMA’s. These are the non-festival awards, but critically important, box office-boosting, major statues also come from the world of festivals.

From the global horizon, the Venice Film Festival, established in 1932 with the Golden Horse, is said to be the most consistent/oldest film fete of all the festivals worldwide. In France, Cannes may have been established in 1939 with Louis Lumière, but the award show did not gain traction until 1946 due to political and social upheaval during those years. The Berlin Film Festival with its Golden Bear was established in 1951, with newer festivals proliferating in an unending stream of fetes and awards.

Today we have a tapestry of shows from the Taipei Film Festival to Kazakhstan’s Eurasia Film Festival, where Sergei Eisenstein once filmed Battleship Potemkin in Almaty, to niche shows such as the Human Rights & Dignity Film Festival in Myanmar/Burma, established in 2013. This festival is dedicated to activist Aung San Suu Kyi and celebrated on her birthday in June. Bollywood’s “Biggest Night” is the International Indian Film Academy’s awards show. This is a traveling showcase for Indian cinema, planned at venues from Millennium Dome in London, through Sun City, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Dubai, Yorkshire, Macau, Colombo, and Toronto.

All of these festivals have nominating committees, and usual guest programmers. Some are peer-decided, but most are contingent upon a pivotal few inside the organizations themselves. 

For the US, awards contention usually requires a two-week run in LA or NY at least. Other countries have their own requirements for run time, but the Gold standard of statuettes is still the Oscar(r) from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

It is the huge draw of this Hollywood-based award in prestige, but equally crucial is the free movie marketing promotional machine that the Oscar becomes, reaching a billion plus people worldwide to influence box office totals. (They say Hollywood is a small town, what they mean is, don’t blow it here because this is Awards Central, a small town with long memories.)

Let the Awards Campaigns begin…


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About Quendrith Johnson

Johnson Quendrith

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