Friday, February 3, 2023

How Campaigning As A Unified Cast Can Help You Win Best Picture

Despite our best efforts in predicting and analyzing the historical record, every year, the fact remains that some Oscar campaigners rise above any odds through intangibles- qualities that make them powerful despite their alleged improbabilities. One of these intangibles that have always been critical is enthusiasm around a film. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is first: enthusiasm must never be underestimated, and second: a cast navigating the campaign trail as a high-charisma unit is becoming a tried and true method of generating enthusiasm.

We need not look any further back than earlier last year for a prominent example. Even in February, as Oscar nominations were announced, eventual Best Picture winner “CODA” was decidedly in the bottom tier of competitors by conventional wisdom. Within what seemed like a blink of an eye, however, “CODA” went from an improbable 3 Oscar nomination Sundance charmer to a sweeping awards player that entered Oscar night as (by some metrics) a true frontrunner for Best Picture. Perhaps the most significant wind in “CODA’s” sails was the enthusiasm generated by the main cast traveling together on the campaign trail. While Troy Kotsur was collecting Best Supporting Actor prizes, he always had a small army of his costars and director cheering him on, inspiring whole rooms to join in signing ASL applause. The most seasoned stars of Hollywood were lining up to meet the group of relative newcomers, and necks craned in every room they walked into. The “CODA” cast occupied the most popular table at multiple ceremonies, and the love translated to a SAG Ensemble win- just about the most concrete sign of industry love for a film’s whole unit. That win felt undeniable, and the Best Picture Oscar followed very closely behind.

While other casts were obviously unable to generate the same kind of in-person celebrity in 2020, this strategy was not altogether absent. “Minari” comes to mind as another film whose cast became Hollywood darlings, even behind webcams. Every second of Zoom time that Alan Kim got went immediately viral on Twitter, and Yuh Jung-Youn’s acceptance speeches for her Best Supporting Actress wins were highlights of almost every show. Combined with Steven Yeun’s widespread adoration, this cast was lethally charming. While this didn’t translate to a Best Picture win, it is hard to argue that the cast’s undeniable charm, passion, and novelty kept “Minari” in the headlines throughout awards season, leading to an Oscar win for Yuh Jung-Youn. One can only imagine how things might have been different given a normal year with hands to shake and selfies to take.

But for my money, the absolutely quintessential (and arguably groundbreaking) example of the Campaign-as-a-Cast strategy came in 2019, with Best Picture winner and overall international sensation “Parasite.” The effort taken to ensure the cast stuck together was immense and must have been quite costly, but it’s a bet that paid off every step of the way for the film. Their whole crew appeared at almost every awards ceremony, and stars like Song Kang-ho, Park So-dam, and Cho Yeo-jeong became overnight celebrities on American soil. Alongside a word-of-mouth campaign for the ages, the “Parasite” cast campaigning together created a distinct and undeniable buzz around Hollywood- and the rest of the world.

Their existence as a cast unit became a defining feature of the film on the campaign trail- for better or for worse: it may be this very same phenomenon that kept many of the actors from receiving (deserved) individual award consideration. From the moment they graced the carpets at Cannes (seven cast members and writer/director Bong Joon-ho), “Parasite” felt like a force to be reckoned with, and the coordination of the cast as a unit emerged as a clear strategy. Months after their Palme d’Or win, as “Parasite” fever swept the world and the cast plastered magazine spreads and online articles (along with drippy fan edits of “Jessica from Chicago” online), they took the stage with SAG Ensemble awards in hand- a moment that felt both entirely shocking yet clearly inevitable.

What used to be an underdog behind the glossy Hollywood studio productions of “1917,” “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” and “The Irishman” was now a bonafide Best Picture contender in it to win it. And indeed, a few short weeks after standing on stage at SAG, the cast (along with Bong Joon-ho and his three other Oscars that night) found themselves in the Dolby Theater spotlight as Best Picture winners, the first time for an international non-English speaking film.

These recent examples paint a picture of an era in Oscar campaigning where cast charisma and cohesion can give a contender a significant boost in enthusiasm and momentum. So what can this mean for the current Oscar race?

At first glance, the film that has both already tapped into this and still has the most to gain from it is “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” There was a moment early this fall that felt like a tipping point for the film’s campaign: the fall festivals had revealed the vague shape of the awards race for the first time, early screenings and Q&As were starting to pop up, and it was make or break for the film’s awards strategy. Months after its wide release, how were the A24 and the movie going to make a genre-defying maximalist passion project into a top-tier awards contender for the Oscars (almost a calendar year later!)? At this point, I- a dutiful student of the recent Oscars history described above- began screaming to myself, “Campaign as a cast!” Luckily, at this point, A24 dolled out several screenings and panels that featured writers/directors The Daniels and the irresistible cast Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and the famously vocal campaigner Jamie Lee Curtis. By all accounts, their camaraderie and charm were everything you would expect and more. A24 smartly realized the assets they had in their cast, and the buzz has seemed to grow with every event the team attends this season. If some is good, is more necessarily better with a little over two months still remaining before Oscar Sunday? Can the Hollywood love affair with the cast of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” manifest itself into a SAG Ensemble win? It will become very difficult to bet against as your next Best Picture winner if it does.

Another film that stands to benefit from this is “Women Talking.” This recommendation comes partly because of a small track record of it actually working for them in the past. In early September, the film premiered at Telluride, and by most accounts, it was the talk of the town. No doubt part of this was due to the general strength of the movie- it was one of the highest profile films to run there (let alone premiere)- but also thanks to the enthusiasm generated by the cast’s presence. Especially in a smaller setting, secluded from the glitz of Hollywood, star power like Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Frances McDormand, alongside writer/director Sarah Polley made a huge splash and made “Women Talking” one of the most buzzed-about titles during the chaotically crowded fall film festivals. It shot up in many people’s predictions to start September- a stature that has proven hard to maintain for the film: once viewed as a top-tier Best Picture contender to rival the likes of “The Fabelmans” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” it now has dropped to the lower rankings of the Best Picture ten, with a growing portion of predictors worrying about its chances altogether after critical misses at the Golden Globes especially. The ensemble of “Women Talking” is a commanding presence in any room, with strong advocates and stars toting a vital and timely message. If they want to regain ground as a solid Best Picture contender, this strategy could have a lot of upside for them.

One final film in the Best Picture hunt that could utilize the campaign-as-a-cast blueprint is Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees Of Inisherin.” This is a film that has been recently compared to 2021’s “The Power Of The Dog,” whose cast- despite being a major strength of the movie and scoring four acting nominations- rarely appeared as a cohesive unit and missed a SAG Ensemble nomination apparently because of the shallow “ensemble” extending beyond the four major actors (three of whom were nominated for individual SAG awards). This same reason may make the team behind “The Banshees Of Inisherin” worry- the bench is fairly shallow beyond their four actors who may all be nominated individually (Farrell, Gleeson, Keoghan, and Condon). To make up momentum and ground that may be lost by missing a SAG Ensemble nomination, it is in the campaign’s best interest to have the four main actors pound the pavement together. Back in October, it looked like the charismatic Farrell/Gleeson combo was going to dominate the campaign trail (see Gleeson’s cheeky banter with Farrell on SNL), but they have since been less visible. Similarly, while “The Fabelmans” started off the season as a single cast unit at its TIFF World Premiere, Michelle Williams had a baby, which has broken the cast up a bit along the campaign trail, and one could argue this along with general apathy towards the film, and its weak box office intake has hurt the film’s chances at winning Best Picture.

Actors are the largest voting branch of the Academy. If you can rally them to your side, your chances of winning Best Picture at the Oscars grow dramatically. Recent years have taught us that campaigning as a complete cast unit is a reliable strategy to snowball momentum and enthusiasm before the Academy Awards. The awards stop at SAG is one of the most crucial. Of course, this is only sometimes the case, as there will always be anomalies where the SAG Ensemble winner will not go on to win Best Picture. We will have to see if any of the films above can tap into this strategy to boost their Oscar hopes or even spark a late-stage breakout- after all, we’ve seen it happen before.

What do you think will be nominated at this year’s Screen Actor’s Guild Awards for Best Ensemble? Do you think any of the ensembles this year will lead their film to a Best Picture victory? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ccurtiss98

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