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Marathon Training: The Documentary Awards Season Grind

All That Breathes (courtesy of HBO)

By the time you read this, awards season, that annual ritual of accolades and extroversion, will be full throttle. Mounting and sustaining a campaign is often prohibitive, both as a budgetary line item and as an all-consuming occupation. Contenders live in the air and in hotels, go where their team sends them, agree to hundreds of interviews and participate in just as many Q&As and roundtables. 

But on the upside, an awards campaign is an opportunity to build a worldwide network of friends and contemporaries. Filmmaker reached out to former Academy Award nominees in the Feature Documentary category to share their epic tales—what they learned, how they grew and what they can pass on to you. We also reached out to a few key expert guides—publicists and marketing executives—who offer their insights about strategy and stamina.

The Awards Campaign Landscape: From Festival Premiere to the Oscars Shortlist

Each of the nominees we spoke to premiered their films at Sundance. If a film is lucky enough to premiere at Sundance and win an award, it can gain traction on the festival circuit through the spring and summer months, earning reviews and, hopefully, additional awards along the way. In the crucial months leading up to the Oscars shortlist announcement in mid-December, the film’s team can then reposition the film as a contender and craft a strategic awards campaign. 

Veteran publicist David Magdael has overseen many campaigns in his decades in the business, but the most significant change over that time has been the current preeminence of the shortlist. “A lot of people saw more value in making sure that their film got to the top 15,” he observes. “For us on the publicity side, that just increased our time in really pushing those films out there, and what has become increasingly most important is voter outreach.”

Since its launch in 2002, the documentary branch of the Academy has grown significantly in both members—now around 700—and in ethnic and regional diversity. Former branch governor Roger Ross Williams has noted that the branch achieved gender parity and an international membership of 30 percent by the time his term ended in 2022. Branch members decide by preferential vote on both the 15 shortlisted docs and the five nominees. The entire Academy membership then votes on the eventual winners.

Also figuring in the awards bonanza is the abundance of end-of-year critics and guilds awards, as well as the IDA Documentary Awards, the Gotham Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, the BAFTAs, the Cinema Eye Honors, the Critics Choice Awards and so on. “You want to be in the mix when people are talking about awards,” Magdael maintains. “And not just press, but people on the ground: doc people in the doc community, not necessarily just voters.” Magdael also cites the DOC NYC short list section and the Docs to Watch strand at the Savannah Film Festival as fall season attention-grabbers.

Engaging a Publicist

The question of when to engage a publicist often depends on the film’s festival premiere, how it does there—and what the budget will stand.

 “I think the important context for our film is that we didn’t have a lot of information,” says Rintu Thomas, director and producer, with partner Sushmit Ghosh, of Writing with Fire. “When the film won two awards at Sundance, and we were told that no Indian doc had won, it just felt like, ‘This should be a distributor’s wet dream; this film should just take off.’ And it didn’t. Autlook, our sales agent, had been a brilliant partner, and Salma [Abdalla, the CEO] was like, ‘I think you should invest in a publicist.’ Honest to God, we didn’t know what a publicist does at a festival. It’s a heavy cost for a film that’s not closed its budget, but thankfully, when we’d signed the sales deal with Salma, there was a provision of Autlook actually taking care of that cost in case the film got entered into the top-tier festivals, so we knew we had that money.”

While they didn’t engage a publicist right away, and with the pandemic still very much a reality in 2021, the Writing with Fire team opted to make the most of the virtual strictures and target high-profile festivals with a robust online presence and smaller regional festivals with a hunger for global cinema. They started garnering awards, press coverage and attention from social media, and when the film gained traction from January through September—and had secured PBS’ Independent Lens for US broadcast and Music Box Films for US theatrical— Thomas and Ghosh’s colleagues in the documentary community advised them to launch an awards campaign in earnest. “The money was a big challenge,” Thomas recalls. “We reached out to both our EPs [Hallee Adelman and Patty Quillin]…. They were both like, ‘We believe in you. We don’t know anything about these campaigns. If it’s about trying, what’s the bare minimum you need?’ And we were very late—we started in October, when the publicists already have eight to 10 films on their hands.” The team engaged publicists in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, the three cities with the highest concentrations of documentary branch voters.

Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes also premiered at an all-virtual Sundance in 2022, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. That was enough to land HBO Documentary Films as the worldwide television distributor and secure an invitation from the Cannes Film Festival, which was held in person; the film won the L’Œil d’or there, and that’s when Sen’s team engaged a team of publicists. “It really matters who the publicists are, what their perspective is and how they are in an interpersonal way,” Sen notes. “I was worried that I’d be completely dazed in the headlights. With our publicists, we developed a kind of collegial, professional respect. That becomes a kind of life raft.” 

While Minding the Gap was both his first feature and his first foray into an awards campaign, Bing Liu had worked with production partner Kartemquin Films for a number of years as a cinematographer and as a director on the 2018 series America to Me. “Kartemquin had a lot of films go to Sundance in the past, so they advised that we get a publicist and hire an agent,” he recalls. “I had no idea the film was going to go as far as it did. We already had PBS, so my only real hope was that we get some sort of distribution deal that would allow the film to be seen and reviewed more widely.”

The Minding the Gap team landed Hulu as a streaming distributor, which, in turn, agreed to get behind both an awards campaign and an impact campaign. Hulu also enlisted Magnolia Pictures as a theatrical distributor for a day-and-date summer release in tandem with the streaming premiere. Kartemquin and Hulu hired publicists in New York and LA prior to release and had weekly calls with them through the rest of awards season. 

“Kartemquin is a very different model from streamers and studios,” Liu notes. “They have relations with a lot of regional festivals and different organizations and individuals, and a lot of them happen to be voting members of different guilds and the Academy. And we had Steve James and Gordon Quinn as EPs, and they were able to talk about the film a lot. PBS and POV have their own things they do. It wasn’t just a for-hire awards campaign; it very much felt grassroots.”

Opportunity Costs

Liu carved out time to work on his next film, All These Sons, while promoting Minding the Gap. “As I was finishing Minding the Gap, Josh Altman and I were developing our next film; we had gotten greenlit in March of 2018,” Liu explains. “So, we started going into full-swing production on a vérité film. My mind was split in that way. I had to make tough judgment calls about what I could attend and what I couldn’t. I would do insane things like go to Munich for 36 hours, be jet-lagged, come back and step into a shoot. The day we got nominated, I got all these congrats on my phone, but then I had to turn it in because we were filming inside of Cook County Jail. It was kind of a surreal experience—knowing this big thing has happened, but then not thinking about it and focusing on this story of this person who had much bigger stakes in his life.”

For Thomas, “There’s a lot of physical and mental exhaustion. Also, for those of us on the other side of the sun, the actual action is happening in the [United States]. We’re always 13 hours ahead, but it means you’re always behind us. We were doing the heavy lifting, the designing of the strategy, because the publicist says, ‘You need to do this, you need to do this.’ There was no space for talking about a new project. But it also felt like we were on to something. We were weighing the opportunity cost against, ‘What if it happened? It’d be so cool for not just us, but for every South Asian filmmaker.’ Also, it helped that in India, you have no structures of funding or a system of distribution of nonfiction. It becomes a part of your DNA to pivot all the time.”

Promotion and Publicity

The transition to the year-long grind of talking about one’s film to a myriad of stakeholders takes planning, rehearsing and improvising—particularly when responding to the same set of questions.

For Thomas, the first question usually was, “How did you come to this story?” “There’s only one answer,” she says, “and to reframe it every time just got to me. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re just grateful that there’s somebody interested in talking to you.” “To me, the most difficult part of the job was having the same conversation over and over again,” Sen concurs. “But after a while, you start enjoying it. You know exactly when to take a pause, how to work the audience in the Q&A in the sense that you know what jokes work, what jokes don’t work, the cadence of speech, everything. No question is ever new. So, you figure all of it out.”

“I just tried to find the freshness in it,” says Liu. “I tried to be as authentic as possible, sometimes to a fault. Sometimes, I wouldn’t stick to the talking points that people wanted me to stick to. I saw it as the one time that I get to process all of this, albeit out in the open. I’m also just a naturally curious person. I was observing how this whole system of awards campaigns and the infrastructure works.” 

Words of Wisdom

Having gone through the arduous thrill ride of an awards campaign, and having had the time and distance to reflect on it, what can filmmakers pass on to their colleagues? 

“Know why you want to do this,” Thomas shares. “We wanted our film to be watched. It was really about, ‘While we are spending so much time and so many resources, even if you don’t get short-listed, there are many low-hanging opportunities for creating impact through the film.’ Second, never put your own money into this. In this field, getting returns is very tough. And if you’ve made money, then that’s security for another project. It’s simply not worth putting your own savings into this cash-burning juggernaut.”

Sen advises, “First, prepare, especially if you live in the Global South, for extreme exhaustion, for a really long sojourn in hotel rooms and many flights. Second, understand that while it takes something from you, it also gives something back. Third, make friends with all the people who will be on the road with you. People often assume that it’s competitive and really snarly and nasty, but actually we were very friendly with all the Oscar nominees; we felt like we were all occupying different lanes of films. There’s a real thickness to those friendships; it doesn’t feel transient and fleeting when you’re in it. Harboring good relationships with people who will support you, like the publicists and all of that, is really important. But the main thing is that you have a relationship with your mind; there’s going to be a lot of time with yourself. So, it helps to like your own company and enjoy solitude and do the classic foundational things of reading and watching films and all of that.”

“Focus and don’t worry,” says Liu. “You get what you put into it. If your conception of the worth of your film is tied up into whether or not [critics] write good reviews, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. The goal for me when I started making this film was to have it make an impact in the world. Part of that means just having it be seen, so, for me, the greatest benefit was that the film got seen in a world where there’s so much content and noise. Go in with a goal that feels a bit more evergreen and timeless and not tied to the stamps of success that the system tries to place on you. That leads to disappointment, burnout and frustration. You have the agency and power to not allow that to affect your own conception of the work that you’ve made, the purpose for which you’ve made it and the effect it’s going to have in the world.”

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