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How To Run a DIY Oscar Campaign

Dan Mirvish at the Hamptons Film Festival

Now that the drama is over about whether the Academy would disqualify Andrea Riseborough for her rules-skirting DIY Oscar campaign for To Leslie, we can now return to the question every indie filmmaker wants to know. Just how do you run a DIY Oscar campaign on an indie film that grossed less than $30,000? I don’t know exactly how she did it, but I can tell you how I did it with my recent Watergate thriller/comedy 18½ that grossed about the same (though with slightly different results).

In short, the road to getting an Oscar nomination (much less an award) for an obscure indie can start down one or more of several paths. For starters, it helps if you’ve had a prestigious festival launch as early as Sundance in January or as late as Telluride and Toronto. But you might be able to compensate with strong momentum at A- or B+ festivals in both the US or abroad. Or you might have proven success with a small but culturally meaningful theatrical release, either self-distributed or with a small distributor. Finally, after an Oscar eligibility run you just need to gain attention at bellwether indie awards, guild awards and/or critics awards. After that, the hardest thing to do will be to decide who you’re wearing on Oscar night!

Why Campaign at All?

The first step in a DIY campaign is figuring out early what your goals are. To win an Oscar! Sure, who wouldn’t want an Oscar? And for many, if not most, filmmakers, that’s enough of a reason. But if you’re going to be spending money on a campaign – even a little – you need to dig deeper into why you’re spending that money, and a considerable amount of time, to do a campaign. 

A few other legitimate reasons may include ingratiating yourself to your cast and their respective agents and managers. Nothing says “I love you” like putting on a For Your Consideration (FYC) campaign! Actors and agents will remember you fondly for your next film if you put them on a pedestal for this one. Likewise, your investors, backers, crew and family will all be impressed with your efforts, even if your results fall far short of Oscar gold — especially if you’re not spending a fortune to get there. Getting press as an “Oscar contender” or having made one of the official Oscar shortlists is definitely something to put on your own and the film’s resume. Distributors can use any amorphous Oscar buzz to help sell international territories, ancillaries and help sell the film to audiences in whatever format or platform it takes. And if you don’t have a distributor, then there’s nothing like a “successful” Oscar campaign to help you get one. (It’s a long story, but in 2004, my “unsuccessful” campaign for my undistributed real estate musical film Open House generated enough international press that I got not one, but two films picked up for distribution.)

Even if you aim high for an Oscars win, nomination or official shortlist and you don’t make it, you could still wind up with an ego-boosting nomination or win at the Gothams, the Spirit Awards, countless guild and trade awards, critics’ society end-of-year lists, or even just a few extra Letterboxd watchlists or reviews. At the end of the day, people may not remember exactly what your film won, but they will remember that you were part of “the conversation” or “the discourse.” And ultimately, that may be enough for you and your team.

It’s an Honor Just to Be Eligible

The first step towards any DIY awards campaign is making sure you’re even eligible. Most film awards effectively defer to the Academy’s eligibility requirements, so if you focus on those, you should be in good shape across the board. The Oscar requirements change a little bit every year, and especially during the peak Covid years. But for the most part, if you screen your film in a commercial theater in Los Angeles County for seven consecutive days, three times a day, with at least one of those screenings being between 6:00 and 10:00 PM, then you’re eligible for an Oscar! There’s definitely a bit more to it than this, and you should check the Academy Awards rules for eligibility dates and any other changes. (In the past couple years, even a once-nightly, seven-night run at an Atlanta drive-in would have qualified you.) And that’s just for narrative features. Documentaries, short films and international features have very different eligibility requirements, though the one-week rule in LA County is a pretty good failsafe for most kinds of films to cover you for most categories.

Of course, screening in LA might break your bank early on. Many self-distributed films – and even some films with legitimate distributors – wind up “four-walling” (aka renting) a theater in LA. But even if you make back that money in ticket sales, or if you strike a more traditional exhibition deal with a theater, running an Oscar-qualifying run will still accrue at least some costs. Hopefully, you’ll already have a DCP, posters and trailer from your festival run, but there are surprises. When we screened 18½ at Laemmle’s Monica, I strapped on a sandwich board before screenings and stayed for Q&As for most afterwards — racking up $70 in parking fees at the adjacent Santa Monica city lot. 

In addition to meeting the eligibility requirements for the Oscars, you also have to formally enter your film for it to count. Here’s the good news: It’s free to submit your film to the Academy Awards! You just go to Oscars.org, fill in some forms and you’re in. The basic submission process will take less than an hour, and you’ll wind up being one of only about 300 films eligible that year. When the history books are written about what films were made each year, there’s a good chance they’ll use the Academy’s annual list. It truly is an honor just to be eligible! And trust me, all your backers, cast, crew and family will think that, too.

So what’s the bad news? If you want Academy voters actually to see your film, you’re just getting started. The easiest way is to upload your film onto what’s called the “Academy Screening Room.” Essentially, it’s a private streaming service only accessible by Oscar members. In recent years, the Academy charged filmmakers $12,500 for this privilege. By 2022, that price had rocketed to $20,000 — a fee that includes invisible watermark security protection. Now if you’re a Hollywood studio – or even an A24 or Neon – $20,000 is chump change. But for a DIY indie filmmaker, that could easily be as much as you hope to gross on your film, and probably way more than you’ll net. (Reportedly, there is a discounted “Alternate Rate Application” for lower-budgeted films, but you have to know it exists and then to apply for it.) Remember, it doesn’t have to be your distributor who pays to put your film on the Academy Screening Room — it could be an eager investor, producer or even your lead actor’s agent, manager or mother. The Academy doesn’t particularly care. But if you still don’t have $20,000 lying around, don’t worry. It’s not required, and there are other ways to get Academy members to see your film.

The traditional way is to send them all DVD screeners. For that, you have to go through one of a handful of fulfillment houses that work with the Academy. These third-party companies have the secret lists of all the Academy members’ home addresses. But to make and send a DVD to all 9,921 Academy members (or at least those who have opted in to physical media mailings) could easily set you back $30-40,000. That $20,000 cost to get on the Academy Screening Room server is looking like a bargain in comparison. Even to send out screener links, it’s not as simple as sending everyone a password-protected Vimeo link. Instead, the Academy requires that you still go through the fulfillment houses, which have to set up individually coded links for each member and send out separate emails, easily costing several thousand dollars per round of emails. 

Of course, the even older school way is to have screenings at theaters in LA, plus a few in New York. But by the time you add up screening room fees, projectionist rates, hosting fees, catering and still go through the fulfillment houses for invites, it’s easily in the tens of thousands to make a discernible difference, even if you do have famous Hollywood actor friends lobbying for you. But as the To Leslie team found out, it’s hard to control all your friends and fans once you unleash them on social media. Just try to make sure everyone on your team is aware of the campaign rules for that year.

The Academy has a few interesting loopholes for specific categories that help level the playing field even more for savvy indie filmmakers. For example, for Best Song, you’re required to submit a three-minute video clip of how that song was used contextually in your film. You have to upload this clip to the Academy Screening Room. But unlike uploading your whole film, just uploading your song clip is free! And realistically, Oscar music branch voters are more likely to watch all or most of the submitted three-minute song clips than watch whole two-hour movies. Likewise, some categories (like VFX and Sound) have “bake-offs” in addition to their shortlists. But many of these rules change every year, so be sure to read them every spring when they get released.

The Gothams, Spirits and Golden Globes

For an indie film, the best pathway towards any Oscar consideration – as Andrea Riseborough’s case illustrates – is to get at least a nomination in the Gothams or Spirit Awards. (Riseborough received a latter nomination for her performance in To Leslie.) In 2022 is was only $300 to submit to the Gotham Awards if you had a distributor, but just $100 if you were doing some version of self-distribution. In 2023, the Spirits, though, had a strict $450 fee, regardless of whether you had a distributor. The bad news is that for both Gothams and Spirits, it’s next to impossible to campaign for a nomination because the nominating committees are mostly secret. Of course, that’s good, because it also saves you money on campaigning and levels the playing field with big distributors who (in theory) also can’t campaign for a nomination.

In reality, there are some things you can do to campaign, at least for the Gothams. Almost every year, the Gothams will list the members of that year’s nominating committee when they announce their nominees. Isn’t that too little too late to lobby them? Yes, but nothing is stopping you from sifting through several prior years of press releases and doing some regressive analysis. You can see that, depending on the category, the Gothams have recruited back many of their individual nominating committee members year-to-year and have less frequently recruited brand new critics. Many categories, particularly the Best Feature and the various performer categories, are dominated by top-tier film critics and journalists from the trades (Indiewire especially, but also Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The Wrap, Los Angeles Times, RogerEbert.com, etc.). Other categories, such as Best Documentary Feature, have in recent years been dominated by curators and programmers from top documentary festivals. There has also been a trend toward more diverse and younger critics getting involved in recent years, who aren’t necessarily at the legacy publications. Everyone on the nominating committees, for both Gothams and Spirits, will get a link to your film (unlike the Oscars, you don’t have to pay $20,000 for that privilege). And theoretically, they’ll watch all the submitted films.

Keep in mind that the committee members are watching films at the height of the late summer/early fall “big festival” season. Many of them, particularly the critics, have been bouncing around from Venice to Telluride to Toronto. Likely they went to Cannes earlier in the summer and definitely to Sundance the prior January. It seems fair to surmise that critics will skew more positively towards films which they saw in person at a festival. Those are the high-profile indie films for which they’ve hobnobbed with the stars, directors and distributors, and often have already reviewed and raved about in their respective outlets and/or social media. Compare that to when they’re cramming five Vimeo links a night from lower profile, self-distributed indie films they’ve barely heard about, while possibly nursing low-grade hangovers, jetlags and viruses, in the midst of holding down a day job, too. Not to say that they don’t or won’t watch your little indie film, but no amount of lobbying, cajoling or begging will get them to strongly consider it over ones in which they’re already emotionally vested.

That doesn’t mean you or your publicist, if you have one, shouldn’t try. The committees are small enough that just one passionate member can sway their colleagues to at least consider one aspect of your film – a particular performance or maybe your screenplay – for a nomination. But you need to be realistic in your expectations.

For better and worse, the Spirit Awards nominating committee is even more secretive and opaque. Unlike the Gothams, Film Independent’s Spirits don’t ever announce who was on the nominating committee, even after the nominees are announced. It’s a top secret list they haven’t revealed in years. (And when it was more commonly revealed, back in the late ‘90s, it turned out the head of the committee was also the top programmer at Sundance). Of course, that’s not to say that nobody knows who’s on that committee. At least some professional PR campaigners for the studios probably know, but they’re not talking. The upside is that those on the committee are more likely immune to direct campaign pressure. But they’re still subject to the same hot press and reviews coming out of the big festivals, and they’re still seeing all the general Oscar buzz and ads about certain big indie films. If you do get a nomination, then the final awards are voted on by anyone who joins the organization, which is open to the general public. In other words, the Spirits have a secret nominating committee and a final voting body that is literally pay-to-play.

Ironically, the awards with the most transparency is the one with arguably the rockiest track record, The Golden Globes. For years, it was fairly easy to know who were the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. And because of this transparency, it was much easier for critics of the organization to call them out on a variety of organizational deficiencies and transgressions, including a lack of diversity. But the upside to the HFPA is that with barely 100 members, it was never inconceivable – or at least not too expensive – for a small indie film or actor to campaign, particularly in niche categories.

There are other awards indies should consider, especially if your film gets a UK release or festival run, including the BAFTAs and the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) which have categories for international films. The indie film awards that are the most accessible and fun for tiny indies is AwardThis!, run by the team at FilmThreat (full disclosure: I’m a past winner and presenter). But since they’re given in late spring, AwardThis! is more of a culmination and celebration of awards season for indie filmmakers, rather than a precursor to bigger awards. 

For indie filmmakers, the other challenge is that while the Oscars have a multitude of craft award categories to help bring your film into awards discourse, the indie-friendlier Gotham and Spirit awards don’t have nearly as many. If you’ve got an American indie narrative film up for the Gothams, you can only compete for Best Feature, Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award (first-time director), Screenplay, Outstanding Lead and Supporting Performance and Breakthrough Performer. For the Spirits, there are a few more categories including ones for Cinematography, Editing and First Screenplay. There are also more amorphous categories like the John Cassavetes Award for films with a budget threshold under $1 million (up this year from $500,000) and the Someone to Watch Award, essentially for first-time directors. Neither the Gothams nor Spirits acknowledge score, songs, sound, production design, costume design, hair, makeup, visual effects or other essential crafts that contribute to the making of a movie. So if you think one of your craft categories might be your film’s best bet as an awards contender, you need to find yourself some new awards.

The Guild Awards

The road from the guild awards to the Oscars is sometimes a more direct route than getting an indie film award. This is particularly true with the craft categories that have official shortlists: Makeup and Hairstyling, Score, Song, Sound and Visual Effects (other categories with shortlists are Doc Feature, Doc Short, International Feature, Animated Short and Live Action Short) A nomination in those respective craft guilds almost assures at least a nomination if not a shortlist spot in the Academy. The challenge is timing: Some guilds announce nominations before the Academy shortlists are announced, and some are after. Research carefully to find out what works for your needs. I once served on the International Documentary Association’s awards committee, and I can tell you, everyone on my committee took themselves very seriously, and we definitely felt like we had a hand in nudging the Oscar doc selections towards the films that we were picking for the IDAs.

The guild awards are a mixed bag of relative expenses and opportunity. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) awards, for example, are free to submit to, even if you’re not a member! The eligibility requirements are similar to the Oscars, but this year saw 421 eligible features, compared to the Oscars’ 301 (many direct-to-streaming films not eligible for Oscars likely wound up being DGA eligible). Of course, it’s hard to truly compete for a DGA award: There are only five nominees for Best Feature, and there’s a pretty good chance that Steven Spielberg will get at least one of those slots (often for good reason) and four other dudes will get the rest. The DGA does have a separate “First Time Director” category, which usually does include some obscure indie films (and almost always skews much more heavily female than the Best Feature category). If you’re a first-time indie director who gets that nomination or award, you can definitely parlay that into some awards buzz if you try. But the real mystery is that while everyone in the DGA gets to nominate and then vote on the Best Feature category, the First Time category is nominated and voted on by some sort of mysterious jury. It’s even more opaque than the Spirit Awards, and therefore even harder to campaign for it.

Other guilds and category-specific awards abound: SAG awards ($200 per actor submitted), ASC, WGA, Production Designers, Sound (two different guilds, two sets of awards), Costume Designers, etc. For score and song, the analogous guild is the Society for Composers and Lyricists (SCL). In many cases, you have to be a member of the respective guild to submit your film. But some, like the SCL, are happy to admit you as a new member (for $135), and then you can submit one song or score for free. In our case, both composer Luis Guerra and I joined and submitted, and we were able to submit both the score (the SCL has a separate category for Independent Score, for films under $15 million, so we angled for that), as well as two songs, “Brasília Bella” and “Wonder Bread,” for which Luis composed the music and I was the lyricist.

There are so many potential guild and craft awards, you really need to narrow down your realistic chances with each, or you could go broke applying to all of them. Since so many of these awards come down to popularity contests, you should take a hard assessment of your cast and crew: Do any of them have leadership roles in their particular guild or union? Are they members at all? Will consideration for an award help them become a member? And which of them will have the time, inclination and friends willing to help their own grassroots campaign?

Beyond the craft nominations influencing Oscar selections directly, the advantage to competing in them is that most of the guilds don’t have nearly as stringent campaign rules as the Academy does. For example, when you send an email to Academy members, there are very strict guidelines about not using any critical blurbs, flowery quotes, or even still images from the film (all of which helps level the playing field for indies). With most guilds, those campaign rules are much looser, which inevitably helps the studio releases that have big budgets for DVD screeners, coffee-table books, vinyl soundtracks, lavish star-studded screenings, etc. You can much more actively and aggressively campaign within the context of a particular guild, without worrying about breaking the stricter Oscar rules. For example, the Academy says you can only email a particular branch (say, music), once a week, and point them to an unembellished website with your score, and (prior to the shortlist being announced) you’re not allowed to send them links to your song at all. But if you send a blast out to the 2,625 members of the SCL, you’re allowed to send unencumbered emails and links to your score and songs or screening invites. And you hope that out of those 2,625 members, most of the roughly 400 members of the Academy music branch will also “happen to” see those emails. 

The advantage to focusing your efforts on one or two craft categories is you can save your money by just targeting Academy members in that particular branch. For 18½, we decided to send a single email blast about the score to the Academy music branch a week before voting, and it only cost $525 through one fulfillment house (though another wanted to charge us about four times that).

Awards season is big business in Hollywood. One thing the guilds have figured out is that campaign season can be their most lucrative way of earning money. Beyond submission fees, most of the guilds require campaigns to send all mailings (including email) through one of the handful of fulfillment houses. In addition to the money the fulfillment folks charge you, there’s often an “access fee” paid directly to the respective guild. Additionally, there may be expenses added for any live screenings, Q&As or other events or parties. Of course, all these fees keep a lot of people seasonally employed, from publicists to projectionists to fulfillment house DVD-stuffers and envelope-lickers. (And remember, a projectionist working overtime from September to March, might well afford to work as a gaffer or grip on your indie film shooting in May.)

Critics and the Press

Guilds aren’t the only ones who’ve gotten savvy to the awards season cash grab. Critics organizations both large and small are mounting their own awards shows of various sizes with various levels of success. Consequently, some are starting to charge submission fees. Others don’t, but either way there’s no guarantee at all that everyone in that group will ever see your film. Like with the Gotham nominating committee, dominated by top US critics, many of these critics also participate in their respective critics groups awards. One critic might be president of a regional film critics organization, while simultaneously serving on several national film groups, the Gotham committee, and even on film festival nominating committees. All this while happily (or reluctantly) accepting piles of studio swag and sometimes getting paid to host star-studded Q&As. Meanwhile, their actual reviews, articles or podcasts can make or break an emerging film. (Whether these overlapping duties are conflicts or confluences of interest is up to them and their various outlets.)

Getting any kind of critical momentum is essential for navigating a pathway towards Oscar glory. In our case, we focused early on getting a high Rotten Tomato score and ultimately getting “Certified Fresh.” For that, we didn’t necessarily need – and certainly didn’t get – too many of the top national critics to even see the film, much less like it (to this day, still no review from the Penske-owned trades, Indiewire, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter or Deadline). Technically, for films with a “limited release,” you need 40 reviews from Rotten Tomato-eligible critics (at least five of which from designated “Top Critics”) and an average of 75% fresh ones to get the “Certified” status, and the nice trophy that comes with it.

Every critics organization handles their voting differently. Some, (like the Los Angeles Film Critics Association) have had knock-down, drag-out deliberative discussions (where one passionate advocate for your film could make a huge difference). Some announce nominations and later narrow down decisions to final awards. Others go straight to awards, with simple voting tabulation from their members with nary a discussion to be had. Consequently, there aren’t a lot of outliers: Most critics groups give their awards and kudos to films from among the prevailing front runners.

There’s a more subtle reason to reach out to critics and film journalists. Even if they don’t vote for your film for their own awards, many of them also write or edit awards prediction lists. There’s also a host of writers and outlets who specialize exclusively in Oscar horserace coverage and predictions, i.e. GoldDerby, AwardsRadar, BestNextPicture. All the trades also have staff whose only job it is to cover the horse races specifically. Many of the guilds and crafts organizations also have their own press outlets (ie. the ASC’s American Cinematographer magazine) or there are independent ones that just cover specific areas or broad below-the-line crafts (like BTLNews.com). 

You don’t need any of these journalists to like your film, or for that matter, even to see your film. All you need to do is convince them that enough other people like your film and that you have a legitimate pathway towards Oscar shortlists or nominations. And once horserace-watchers see you’ve made into one “Oscar contender” list, it’s much easier to convince the others that you’re a legitimate contender, too.

For 18½, since we were focused primarily on one category, Best Song, we narrowed our list of horserace press to about 25 individuals. You don’t need to hire a publicist, or send mountains of swag to convince enough of them you’re a contender. Though if you do have leftover swag from your festival run, this is the time to use it. We mailed out several dozen hipster-friendly 7” flexi-vinyl records with two of our songs on them, and it definitely made a difference. 

Mainly, you just need polite and persistent communication to a handful of these prognosticators to get your film into the coveted discourse. We were able to leverage an initial listing on GoldDerby.com as an “Oscar Contender” for the Best Song shortlist into contender status in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, and we were even listed as a “Top Ten Oscar Contender” on AwardsRadar.com. The best press you get is the press you write yourself, so I wrote a long deep-dive piece about our songs for Filmmaker’s website, which also helped build traction along the way.

Keep in mind that during awards season, many outlets, trades and newspapers make considerable money on studio-supported advertising, sponsorship, co-branded screening series and “branded-content” that’s often barely distinguishable from their normal coverage. Even if it’s not explicitly payola or pay-to-play coverage, this brand of “entertainment journalism” includes reporters, editors and publishers who are struggling to sell newspapers, magazines, clicks, and hits. It’s inevitable that they’re going to prefer to cover known movies with big, pretty movie stars to splash on their pages. You’re also competing with high-paid publicists, many of whom have decades-long relationships with editors, critics and journalists.

Compared to the indie, guild or critics awards, the Oscars still dominate most public and media attention. For some categories in particular, just the announcement of all the eligible contenders might be enough to generate widespread press around the world. This year, the Academy released the list of all 82 eligible songs. Variety published the list, and that story got picked up by Yahoo and syndicated globally. Within a day, news outlets had banner headlines on five continents, in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Poland and more. Naturally, the accompanying photos were of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish, but there we were, proudly listed in those articles, too: 18½ and our songs “Brasília Bella,” “Wonder Bread” and “Deadly Butterfly” all mentioned by name! Sure enough, regional international distributors started reaching out to our foreign sales company inquiring about the film.

When all’s said and done, we spent less than the cost of a couple bottles of Oscar-party champagne for our entire campaign. We may not have made the official shortlist, scored a nomination, or won an Oscar, but for my team and myself, the campaign was an unqualified success story.

Dan Mirvish directed and produced the Watergate thriller/comedy 18½ which is currently airing on Starz. He’s the author of the book The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking (Focal Press/Routledge).

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