This Year's Oscar Season: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Awards contenders are hiring armies of publicists — is it savvy campaigning, or desperation?

There's one thing on which everybody in this year's Oscar race can agree: It's a wide-open year.

And, I’d like to add, a really annoying year.

Unlike, say, 2010, when "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech" seemed to be locked in a pitched battle for supremacy as early as September, this year's landscape is full of films that are liked but not loved, or movies that have been embraced but somehow don’t feel as if they can really win.

Maybe that'll change when "War Horse" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" begin screening for more people. (More likely, it won't.) 

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But the unsettled nature of this year's race has already led to what strikes me as an unprecedented piling on, in which every movie that might have a shot at one of the top Oscars suddenly has an army of different consultants and publicists working overtime to make sure it seizes every bit of possible attention.

"It's desperation," said one veteran campaign strategist who agreed that this year is seeing an unusual number of additional hires, particularly on the "indie" side (i.e., the Weinsteins and Fox Searchlights of the world, rather than the major studios).

"Because there aren’t any clear-cut winners at this point, people with the wherewithal are doing the typical Hollywood thing, which is to throw money at the problem. And the result is confusion and lack of focus."

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Hiring outside companies to run an Oscar campaign or supplement an in-house staff has been commonplace in awards races for more than a decade, since Miramax transformed the Oscar landscape in the 1990s. And some companies are doing no more than is traditional this time of year.

But my inbox has been filling up with examples of excess in recent weeks.

"The Artist," for instance, is having a Monday night screening at the Academy, hosted by Charlie Chaplin's granddaughters, Carmen and Dolores Chaplin. Since the screening was announced on Friday afternoon, I've gotten seven different emails soliciting my coverage from three different companies.

And while "The Artist" is one of the more aggressive players these days, it is far from alone in enlisting multiple consultants.

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Fox Searchlight, which employs a large publicity staff, now has two other companies working on its top awards contenders, including "The Descendants" and "Shame." Other companies have in-house publicity staffs, outside Oscar-campaign specialists and third companies to work the theatrical releases (which happen to coincide with the Oscar campaign).

And the Best Picture craziness is echoed in the Animated Feature category, in which Pixar is usually the clear frontrunner. With that company's "Cars 2" not getting the critical approval of past Pixar efforts (a fact that was pointed out to me by a rival's Rotten-Tomatoes-score-quoting publicist in the first example of opponent bad-mouthing I experienced this year), other companies in the mix are stepping up their efforts and bringing extra hands on deck.

I've dealt with three different people on DreamWorks Animation's entries; I got pitched "Rango" twice, from two different companies, even though I had already conducted interviews with principals from the film and had a story in the works. 

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"There are definitely more cooks this year than ever," said Kris Tapley, the founder and editor of the Oscar site In Contention at Hitfix, who has been covering the Oscars closely for 11 years. "I think just more and more personal publicity companies are glomming onto every aspect of talent, and then you get a project with a bunch of people and their reps mixed with the studio reps, and it just builds and builds."

A longtime Oscar consultant who did not wish to be identified said that the thought process of the studios adding additional campaigners is simple: "If they get a nomination, they can say, 'We did this and that's why it happened,'" the consultant said. "And if they don't get a nomination, they can say, 'It's not our fault, because we threw everything we had at it.'

For me, all of this hit a tipping point a couple of weeks ago, transforming the feel of an Oscar season that until then hadn't felt nearly as crazy as the last couple of years. Coming at the same time that the Oscar production team exploded courtesy of Brett Ratner's intemperate mouth, it turned what had been a relatively calm season (at least by awards season standards) into a frantic free-for-all.

And I know it's far too late to turn back now, but I'd really like things to calm down for a while longer.

"The irony is that a well-structured, well-executed campaign does not require a large force," said the consultant. "It just needs somebody running it who knows what they're doing, who can strategize ads, events and screenings, and who knows the Academy.

"But there aren't a lot of those people out there, and bringing in larger forces often muddles things instead of helping them."