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Why They Matter: The Death of Ronni Chasen Reminds Us

Look at that sign: those proportions are correct. All of these films were there because of a great publicist.

The last email I got from Ronni Chasen read as follows:

Wanted to remind you that we are working with Fox on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and are heavily dedicated to securing a nomination for Michael Douglas in the Best Supporting Actor category. As you know, he won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Gordon Gekko in the original Wall Street in 1988, and his performance in this movie is magnificent. We think he has a really strong chance. Hope you can include him on your contender list, and if you need to chat with him about this directly, please let me know…I will see what I can do.

Ms. Chasen, one of the best in the business, knew already that I had been praising Michael Douglas’ brilliant performance in Wall Street 2 after seeing the film at Cannes in May. She knew it because it’s her job to know it. But she also did what needed to be done. Is there money involved? Of course. They get paid for the contenders they get into the Oscar race. The publicists, though, the Oscar strategists, would not be good at their jobs if it was just about the money.

To play the game you have to know the game. Before the advent of the blog, publicists had much less ground to cover. They had to appeal to members via Variety and Hollywood Reporter, both trade publications that, let’s face it, mostly softballed the contenders to the point where most of their content was taken as a step between publicity and entertainment journalism. Advertising was the key to their survival. The studios did not advertise anywhere else because only those two trades sat in lounges, bars, parties, airplanes – the only kind of Oscar stuff you ever saw was in those two magazines.

Things have changed significantly since then. When I first started, that was how studios advertised – only in Variety and Hollywood Reporter. I would buy the magazines dutifully during Oscar season, scan the ads and post them in our FYC gallery. I still think, by the way, that best and prettiest ads can be seen in those two trades, but especially Variety (I would now have to add DGA Magazine and American Cinematographer to that list).

For Your Consideration ads work because they remind voters to remember what a good movie they saw. They also flash quotes by critics and previous award wins. As far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but Movie City News’ David Poland was the first online media outlet to start advertising with the studios for Oscars. Now it is commonplace for all entertainment websites to have them. It’s a lucrative business. Your position within the industry often depends on how many and what kinds of ads you showcase.

If you see ads on a website you can bet that the studios believe Oscar members are reading those websites. And if it isn’t actual Oscar members, it is all of the preceding members of critics groups reading them – the National Board of Review, the Broadcast Film Critics, the HFPA. Votes and buzz trickle down.

But ads are only part of the paradigm. In order to get a contender in the game, you really do need a great publicist or strategist. While they can’t do much with a really bad performance or bad film, if they get a good throw they can run with it.

Ronni Chasen was one of those. Her personal touch was what made a difference. I personally know more than a few publicists and strategists of this caliber. They succeed with a combination of traits: first, they don’t take things personally because every year is a new year. Any publicist or studio who holds a grudge for something someone said or did against their movie does so at their client’s peril. One studio still refuses to advertise with this website because of one thing we wrote about a contender one year – and it’s glaringly obvious because they advertise with all of the comparable sites. It is a much bigger price they pay in the long run. But this can’t be helped. There isn’t any other way they can exert power over an ungovernable group of loudmouths than to withhold advertising.

Still, above and beyond the money involved — and believe me, where money is concerned things are never all that clear cut — the personal touch from a publicist like Ronni Chasen cannot ever be underestimated. I have seen many a sow’s ear turned into a silk purse because of the ambition and vision of the publicist working behind it. Chasen was smart enough to know that grass roots is the way to go when it comes to building buzz. You can appeal all you want to the higher profile media outlets, but if you can wedge your way onto a blog or two, you might get a name out there and sooner or later that name might snowball into a contender. Not always, but often enough. And believe me, it makes the difference sometimes between a nomination and invisibility.

So, you might protest, it’s all about publicity and talent has nothing to do with. Of course talent has something to do with it. But if you take two equally good contenders who both gave great performances, you can often measure how well they’ll do in the Oscar race just by knowing who’s behind them. When I hear a particular studio is behind a movie it immediately makes me stop and look carefully at their horse. Do they have a Secretariat or do they have a Seabiscuit? Champion versus scrappy underdog, in other words. I look at their contenders because I know them by now, and I know that they will work tirelessly to see their contenders do well. I know that they know whether or not the actor or the film has the goods. And I know they will not stop until every blogger has seen the movie.

What publicists never do is try to convince you of someone’s worth. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it. Usually, though, because they’re good at their job they don’t try to foist a total dud upon you. Sometimes they do because that’s what they’re being paid to do, but mostly they believe in their product. And their enthusiasm is often contagious.

I consider many of them friends. So much so that I am pretty sure even if I wasn’t doing Awards Daily we would exchange emails from time to time. They keep me company during Oscar season and it wouldn’t be the same without them. Ms. Chasen and I weren’t close in the way I am with some of the best in the business, but I appreciated her professionalism all the same.

So, did I stop and think seriously about Michael Douglas’ chances when Ronni Chasen sent me that email? You bet I did. It meant something to me because not only was she behind it, but I already knew he gave one of the most memorable performances of the year. I knew that she wasn’t going to stop, no matter how many times I ignored her email or discounted Michael Douglas, she would be there, working hard for her client.

Finally, there is nothing particularly pure about any aspect of the film industry, and especially Oscar season. We can pretend that it’s all about the most deserving. But “deserving” is a matter of opinion, isn’t it. So whose opinion do we value more than any other? Who gets to decide that?¬† The publicists can get the contenders in front of the Academy, but only their performance or the film (or general likability of character and star) itself will get them the win.

I tip my hat to the most audacious and innovative ones – to Fox Searchlight for their Little Miss Sunshine bus, for all of Harvey Weinstein’s shenanigans, even the dirty campaigning always colors me impressed somehow. I love it that it becomes a knock-down, drag-out fight when things get really close to the finish line.

So, here’s to Ms. Chasen. And here’s to all the hard-working men and women who really and truly make the Oscar world go round. They never step up to take any of the credit until they are exposed in an article about Oscar strategy. And they reluctantly step into the spotlight knowing that the more light is put on them the easier we can see the strings.