Harvey Weinstein and the Oscar Race: He’s Gone But Not Forgotten

The ousted Weinstein Company chief revolutionized Oscar campaigning, and his influence will outlast him

There have been times when the departure of Harvey Weinstein in October would have had a big impact on the Oscar race.

2017 is not one of those times.

The co-founder of Miramax and The Weinstein Company, who was fired by his TWC board on Sunday after multiple allegations of past sexual misconduct, has arguably had a bigger influence on Oscar campaigning than any other person over the last three decades.

But this year, he had neither the films nor the resources to be a formidable presence in the race — although, to be sure, the things he did in the past to transform Oscar campaigning, both at TWC and its predecessor, Miramax, will still have an enormous impact on how the game plays out over the next four months.

Asked if Weinstein’s absence would have any effect on this year’s race, one rival campaigner was succinct: “No.”

Added another (who, in a sign that even now people don’t want to annoy Harvey, also requested anonymity), “He wasn’t going to be a player this year. Now he never will be again.”

Coming into this year’s fall festivals, TWC had two films thought to have a chance at Oscar glory. Neil Burger’s “The Upside,” a remake of the French hit “The Intouchables” starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, was always considered more of a commercial play, and the lukewarm reception to its Toronto debut sealed the deal; it will likely be released in 2018 without an awards-qualifying run this year.

The other TWC film, “The Current War,” was considered a more serious contender. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who won praise for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the period drama starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both past Oscar nominees, as inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist George Westinghouse.

The film had a prime premiere slot in Toronto, but reaction was at best muted for a drama that mixed art-house touches with a straightforward awards-bait story. With a 31 percent positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes (20 percent among “top critics”), it came out of TIFF with no real awards momentum.

That leaves writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River,” an intense drama starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, as the company’s likeliest awards contender.

When the film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Weinstein told TheWrap that he thought Renner would land a Best Actor nomination, and the actor’s quietly wrenching performance is certainly one of his strongest since “The Hurt Locker.”

But despite strong reviews and good box-office returns in its August release, “Wind River” remains a long shot, with Renner a dark horse for Best Actor and Sheridan the same for his screenplay.

With Weinstein out of the picture, TWC has not changed its campaign: On Saturday morning it screened the film for guild members twice, followed by Q&As with Sheridan at the Directors Guild and Sheridan, Renner, Olsen, actors Gil Birmingham, Martin Sensmeier and Tokala Clifford, cinematographer Ben Richardson and producer Matthew George at the Aero.

The push for “Wind River” will continue without Weinstein. And if the campaign seems more muted, the reason may less be Weinstein’s absence than the cash-flow problems that in recent years have made it impossible for TWC to carry out the kind of scorched-earth campaigns for which he was once known.

The company has been more cautious with its campaigns in recent years, by financial necessity. After the back-to-back wins by 2010’s “The King’s Speech” and 2011’s “The Artist” and two 2013 Best Picture nominees in “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” the company managed to get “Philomena” a nom in 2013 and “The Imitation Game” one in 2014, but then failed to land a best-pic nominee for the first time in seven years.

Last year it was back with “Lion,” with landed six nominations but didn’t win anything.

The Weinstein touch has been fading in recent years, but campaigns run by a number of publicists who used to work for him have done well. And as their presence in the race suggests, Weinstein’s style of campaigning — or at least the savviness and zeal with which he went about it at his best — has essentially defined the modern awards campaign.

Beginning in the late 1980s with Miramax, when he pushed “My Left Foot” to awards and then continued in the ’90s with “The Crying Game,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The English Patient,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Shakespeare in Love,” Weinstein brought an aggressiveness to the game that no independent company had displayed.

In addition to the ability to identify angles that would play well to voters, his tactics included expenditures on a level never seen from an indie, ads and film clips carefully designed to play up specific aspects of the films (even if that meant distorting the films), meet-and-greet events with talent, screenings anywhere a stray Academy member might be lurking, special screenings and appearances from Washington to Vatican City to tie his films to current events, whisper campaigns against rivals, phone banks to call (and lobby) voters at home, ads featuring endorsements by other Academy members, parties where voters could mingle with stars and the use of a publication’s mailing list to send an appeal that would otherwise be illegal.

None of those were necessarily illegal at the time he did them, though at least the last four were explicitly banned by the Academy soon afterwards. And to be fair, Weinstein was clearly blamed for some whisper campaigns he didn’t actually launch.

But maybe that’s the point — he changed campaigning for everybody. Weinstein and his company campaigned “in a way that just hadn’t been seen before,” the Academy’s longtime executive director, Bruce Davis, once said. “They see it as a competitive sport, and look for every edge, every angle. And they’re not the only ones responsible, because the others have felt the need to step up and match them.”

So that’s the bottom line. Harvey Weinstein won’t physically be a part of the awards race, not in 2017 and probably never again. But his fingerprints will be all over it.