Behind the scenes, Lisa Taback and other "Oscar whisperers" are helping studios take home the gold
Lisa Taback is on a roll.
After years toiling in the trenches of Oscar campaigns, the sought-after awards consultant has in the past two years helped The Weinstein Company secure 29 Oscar nominations and win back-to-back Best Picture Oscars — the first for "The King’s Speech" and the second for that unlikely winner earlier this year, the black-and-white non-talkie "The Artist."
That track record, plus a reputation for quiet, unrelenting pursuit and savvy strategic moves, has cemented her status as the person to hire if you want to win an Oscar.
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“I know no tricks, I know no black magic,” she told TheWrap. “There are no tricks. It’s all about the movies. But if you’re not committed and competitive and thinking in a clever way, you’re not going to succeed.”
Taback is accomplished but not unique; she is one of a near-army of Oscar consultants who have established themselves as key conduits to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, schmoozing, gleaning info, passing intelligence and offering insider advice to movie studios and producers.
“A great consultant is equal parts awards season strategist, media planner, social butterfly, publicist, partisan pit bull, film promoter and hand holder for those who believe their films are truly worthy of the distance,” observed Sony’s Steve Elzer, who has hired many in his time.
“At the end of the day, these people can only do so much in terms of formulating a blueprint to get your film in front of the right eyeballs. Ultimately, the film itself has to shine through and do the heavy lifting,” Elzer told TheWrap.
Taback started as a publicist with Miramax, when it was run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein in the 1990s. She worked on their Oscar campaigns, including the one for surprise Best Picture winner "Shakespeare in Love," and in 1999 struck out on her own, bringing the Weinsteins aboard as her first client. “Lisa has been a tremendous part of our team for many years,” Harvey Weinstein told TheWrap. “She provides great insight, and we are certainly lucky to have her.”
Since those early years, Taback has worked with Sony, Paramount, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, usually on the special movies that need extra care in Oscar season, like "Precious" or "Winter’s Bone." Sometimes she works simultaneously for two rival studios, a contradiction that makes sense only in the funhouse-mirror world that is Hollywood’s tiny Oscar community.
“I’m lucky, I work on great movies,” she said. “I work with smart people. I’m super committed, and I’m really competitive. And I love the movies I work on. I got involved in being a publicist in film because I love independent film. I always wanted more people to embrace it. It was never about working in Hollywood, or working on big movies, finding the glamour. It was always about giving independent cinema a life beyond the arthouse ghetto.”
Beyond that, Taback has been up close with Harvey Weinstein as he has pioneered Oscar campaigning techniques, from establishing phone banks in the ‘90s (which were subsequently banned) to winning endorsements for his movies from prestigious Academy members like Robert Wise, or from historic figures like Dolores and Carmen Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters, who spoke out last year on behalf of "The Artist."
A key to that campaign, Taback said, was its focus on the fact that the movie was shot in Los Angeles. “People fell in love with that,” she said.
“I helped for that message to get out there. I look for the story that people need to be know that can be buried in the back of the film.” Another key tactic involved holding back the DVD screener until the last moment — it arrived in mailboxes the day the ballots were due — so that AMPAS voters were almost “forced” to see the movie on the big screen, with an audience.
While she declined to take sole credit for anything, Taback did acknowledge building up a little-used SAG program called “Conversations,” which consisted of Q&A sessions with actors about their performances. That has grown into a major stop for actors during Oscar season. She was also part of delegating staffers to answer AMPAS members who had problems with screeners or couldn’t get to screenings. A small matter, perhaps, but key in getting people to see the movies.
This year, Taback is thinking hard about David O. Russell’s "Silver Linings Playbook," Paul Thomas Anderson’s "The Master" and Quentin Tarantino’s "Django Unchained," new works from three of this generation’s leading film auteurs. “I’m listening a lot to what they’re saying and how they came to make their films,” she said.
“It’s really different with someone like David Russell or PTA or Quentin. We don’t give them a formula and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I’m really involved with them in the process. We do it with them.”
On the whole, Taback has moved away from “the fancy lunches and dinners.” Instead, she said: “Screen, screen, screen. Don’t make your movie feel precious. Make it feel accessible.” And so she is. In recent weeks, she was out late running between a screening of "Silver Linings Playbook" at the Egyptian Theatre and a last-minute LACMA presentation of Anderson’s favorite war movies.
As for Oscar whispering?
Taback says she talks to members of the Motion Picture Academy “a lot less than you would think. Everyone thinks we have a secret stash of Academy members we can convince,” she joked. “We can ask members to watch the film. When they get 80 films, we can say, ‘If you haven’t watched this film, would you watch it? I think you’d appreciate it.’ And that’s the most I’ll say.”