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The Oscars’ Latest Change Is Really Making Hollywood Upset

Forget #OscarsSoWhite. There’s a new marginalized group of industry professionals complaining that the Academy is shutting them out: publicists.

The outrage among film flacks began Friday, when the Academy announced a change in the way it will reveal the Oscar nominees on Jan. 24. The awards group said it was scrapping its traditional pre-dawn live announcement in favor of a taped video that will stream online (still at the same ungodly hour) and air on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

You’d think publicists, who used to gather at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for the wee-hours ceremony, would be thrilled about not having to drive across Los Angeles while they’re half asleep in order to learn whether the movies they mounted awards campaigns for got nominated. But no.

One disappointed publicist, Dorothea Sargent, wrote a column for the Hollywood Reporter, noting that, for her and her peers, the real honor really is in just getting nominated. (After all, an Oscar nomination is worth more at the box office than a win, since it comes six weeks earlier in a movie’s theatrical run, so scoring nominations is what awards publicists get paid to do.)

So for Sargent and her fellow campaigners to make do without the informal announcement ceremony is to give up the publicist version of the actual Oscars. The live nominations announcement, she said, is where Oscar campaigners traditionally convene and congratulate one another on the hard work involved in orchestrating voter screenings, DVD mailings, and “For Your Consideration” ads in the trade papers.

Now, if you’re a normal person living outside Hollywood, such complaints may strike you as narcissistic. The campaigners don’t actually make the movies, so for publicists to gripe that they’re being denied a ceremony celebrating their role in shepherding the films toward awards-podium glory makes them sound like roosters seeking credit for the sunrise.

Still, it’s not like the Academy can afford to alienate anybody right now, including a profession that includes several Academy voters. And you can’t underestimate the value of skillful campaigning in helping an awards candidate that might otherwise be overlooked rise instead to the top of the screener pile.

Take “Lion,” for instance. It’s a little indie drama from the Weinstein Company that’s made just $14 million in eight weeks of release. But Harvey Weinstein is a master at turning such films into trophy magnets, and his campaign team has scored some real coups this season: Four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Drama (and perhaps more important, a podium appearance by adorable eight-year-old “Lion” star Sunny Pawar that was a highlight of the Globe broadcast), and several award nominations from Hollywood’s professional guilds.

It also earned a nod last week from the American Society of Cinematographers for Greig Fraser’s camerawork, and, in the week’s biggest upset, it earned director Garth Davis, a relatively unknown and unseasoned Australian filmmaker, one of five coveted slots in the Directors Guild Award nominations. (The others went to Damien Chazelle for “La La Land,” Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight,” Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea,” and Denis Villeneuve for “Arrival.”)

The DGA nods are one of the most reliable predictors of Oscar success, not just in the directing category, but also in Best Picture. So the fact that Davis made it instead of, say, Martin Scorsese (“Silence”), Denzel Washington (“Fences”), David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”), or Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”) means we now have to take “Lion” seriously as a contender for Oscar’s top prize — more seriously, even, than “Fences” or “Hacksaw Ridge.”

True, some unlikely movies prevail even without much campaigning. Look at “Deadpool.”

Fox didn’t have to spend a dime to promote it to awards voters; why bother, when the superhero spoof is already hugely profitable and long out of theaters. So it looks like Ryan Reynolds is paying for the movie’s modest campaign out of his own pocket. Nonetheless, the Merc with the Mouth has earned more precursor awards and nominations — including the Globes, the Producers Guild, the Writers Guild, and the American Cinema Editors — than such Oscar-bait movies as “Silence,” “Jackie,” or “Sully.” If “Deadpool” makes it into the Best Picture category ahead of any of those movies, it won’t be for lack of campaigning on their part.

It’s anyone’s guess, really, how much this week’s guild nominations influenced Oscar voters, who had to file their nomination ballots last Friday. Besides “Lion,” the ASC nominated the cinematographers behind “Arrival,” “La La Land,” “Moonlight,” and “Silence,” but since the ASC winner has gone on to take the Oscar only about a third of the time, the award isn’t a good predictor of how the Academy will vote.

The Costume Designers Guild nominated 15 movies this week (in three categories: period, contemporary, and fantasy), but since Oscar voters almost always prefer period costumes, “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Jackie” may be the only CDG nominees that matter.

And then there’s last week’s Golden Globes. For the first time in recent memory, the Globes were handed out early enough to have an impact, but how much were they going to change the momentum in a race where Globe favorites “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Moonlight” were already the frontrunners?
Guess we’ll find out when the Academy streams its nominations next Tuesday. And like everyone else, we’ll find out at home.

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