The Oscar Warrior: Screeners and Schmoozers

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If there’s any question that the awards season is now in full swing then one need look no further than their busy screening-filled calendars or the number of times a week UPS and Fed Ex show up at their doorsteps with boxes full of DVDs of the year’s best (in the eyes of the respective studios) films. It’s the time of year where even the most disgruntled film critic, disgusted with how low opinion may have fallen of us in the last few years, starts to feel kind of special and even… loved. This is the time when free movies show up at your doorstep and where the studios both big and small want to include the movie writers in the process of getting their movies attention and awards both over the holidays and the slower months that follow.

Although I’m assuming many CS readers have read my Oscar Warrior columns since I started writing them eight years ago, I approach my Oscar coverage from a different perspective than other Oscar bloggers in that I consider myself very much an outsider in the industry. I don’t make movies, I write about them. I don’t consider myself a “tastemaker” and honestly, I don’t really believe anything I say or write has that much impact on anything. Evenso, I do hope that enough people agree with my taste in movies and might check out a movie they knew nothing about or had no interest in beforehand.

One thing I know all too well from the years I’ve spent talking to filmmakers is how difficult and expensive it is to make movies, especially when you’re trying to create something personal. I also realize how hard it is to get yourself noticed amidst the millions of dollars spent on advertising for bigger movies.

I’ve been been member of a critics group (New York Film Critics Online) for many years and I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the Broadcast Film Critics Association earlier this year, both which give me amazing access and insight into the business of awards this time of year, as well as a lot of nice benefits. This includes packages of screeners like the ones pictured above from Focus Features, a terrific selection of movies that would make any studio proud. Even though we’ve seen most of the movies we’ll receive, it’s nice to have that reminder going into awards season and as we put together our annual Top 25 list.

The party scene is something I’ve never been quite as familiar or comfortable with, but I’ve been very lucky in the last couple weeks to have been invited to a number of shindigs thrown by Peggy Siegal, one of New York’s primary movers and shakers in terms of putting together premieres and screenings and parties in New York and getting filmmakers and actors of all calibers to attend. If you don’t work in the industry, you’re not likely to know who Peggy Siegal is, but if you do work in the industry, she’s one of the few absolutely mandatory contacts.

Rampart director Oren Moverman has been a regular on Siegel’s scene this season, having hosted a party for Margaret Betts’ powerful AIDS documentary The Carrier before having his own party at Imperial 9, hosted by Ben Stiller along with legendary filmmakers Mike Nichols and Milos Forman. The stars were out in force that night and you couldn’t move without bumping into the likes of Michael Shannon, Steve Buscemi, Courtney Love or the ever-present Celia Weston.

You just never who you might run into at these things. At a party for Take Shelter star Michael Shannon, I chatted with Jake Gyllenhaal. Jake wasn’t out and about gladhanding or looking for a gig but was between movies relaxing and wanted to check out what he may have heard was a cool movie. We got to chat with him about some of the movies we’ve both seen and liked this year, including our diverging opinions on Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In. (Gyllenhaal’s admiration for the film was enough to convince us to watch it again and give it another chance.)

This past week, we’ve been to parties for Sam Levinson’s Another Happy Day (opening in New York and LA this Friday) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a shocking drama that’s been getting raves since Cannes for the performances by Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. Both actors give the type of performances that deserve accolades, and these screenings and parties are the perfect way to entice local and visiting filmmakers and actors to come out to see the movies and get some face time with the stars. The “Kevin” party brought out the likes of Wes Anderson (one of the hosts), Julie Taymor, John Lithgow, Mike White and many others; Another Happy Day brought out an eclectic mix that included Julian Schnabel and Wes Craven.

Fortunately, all the parties we’ve attended are for films we’ve enjoyed so we haven’t had any awkward moments having to lie to filmmakers or actors we spoke to about the movies, and we also have a bit of an in having interviewed many of them before.

It’s really a fascinating scene even for an outsider like myself, because you get to see how much schmoozing is involved in convincing Academy and guild members to see and remember you and your movie when they’re filling out their ballots. How good or bad the food at these parties matters just as much as whether they like your movie or not and Siegel’s crack team of employees makes sure that all the attending stars get the best treatment possible.

The problem is that this year’s Oscar race is so crowded and convoluted with so many different choices and options and ways that things can go, that doing these parties and sending out those screeners is incredibly beneficial especially for some of the smaller indie films and fringe performances in movies being released by studios without the budgets for big TV commercial campaigns.

Then again, most actors and filmmakers tend to be very busy even between projects to actually get out to see movies–not to mention having to deal with paparazzi and the like while doing so–and having a stack of screeners in front of you to watch while you wait in your trailer for the next set-up certainly guarantees that important awards-worthy movies won’t get overlooked.

We have a lot more to share this season, which will hopefully give our readers a bit more insight into what is going on behind the scenes leading up to the Oscars. Believe us. These days, just making or releasing a great movie just isn’t enough to guarantee getting any sort of attention in such a crowded market. That not only goes for the important moviegoers that drive the business but also those actually in the business who make the decisions that affect the future of moviemaking.