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How Whisper Campaigns Work and Why they Suck

If you’re in this business, “business,” long enough you’ll see a lot of nasty shit. I don’t just mean regular old shit you can flush down the toilet, I mean the kind someone leaves slumped in a pile outside, back behind the dumpster where it sits for weeks until the scent mercifully evaporates.  There is nothing you can do it about it, of course, because the press drags it around like a paralyzed mouse, flipping it up in the air just for fun, and ad impressions.

The narratives begin to form and you suddenly realize that the Oscar race has nothing to do with actually awarding high achievement but people voting irrationally – the same way the 75 year-old on his second or third marriage decides to buy a candy-red Ferrari that he doesn’t need, looks ridiculous driving, and will have to sell anyway as his finances take a dive because his new wife can’t stop spending.  That, my friends, is irrationality and it’s the emotional soft spot Oscar campaigning mostly aims to exploit.  It means you don’t think, you feel and that feeling helps to identify you. It means you are operating from a certain pre-packaged delusion that falsely makes you buy something or vote for someone, or worse, not vote for someone.  In sports, it is about winning and losing. In politics you hope the people can see through the bullshit and look at the facts. But the Oscars are about a subjective opinion, which is why voters are so easily manipulated and why the press is always, every year, a willing participant: fool the press, fool the voters.  But hey, don’t worry about it, Jake.

This year there were two strong narratives that I could see emerge.  Argo got hit with one early on, about the Canadians being left out of Argo and the Americans getting to take credit. As I always do, I tried to launch a counter attack to that, to help dispel what would turn into a nasty whisper campaign that ultimately amounted to: Argo is bullshit.  If you’re invisible in the background no one bothers you. But if you’re way out front? You’re a target, and not a moving one.  Lucky for the Argo campaign its opacity soon faded.  For a little while.

While the torture controversy was still boiling, a newly minted whisper campaign was headed Kathryn Bigelow’s way, unearthed from a Hollywood Reporter Kim Masters story that said, in effect, that Mark Boal had so much control over Bigelow he basically “directed” Zero Dark Thirty. Turns out, no one really needed to step on the gas with that one — the campaign was derailed by regular people who had no investment in the Oscar race.  Though anti-torture protesters are still holding up signs outside events someone should tell them that it’s okay, they can go back to their dorms because Bigelow took a hard fall from a high place.  And there was no ensuing pity party for her.

But the worst of it is aimed at the frontrunner, the Goliath, the great whale a certain blogger has made it his mission to harpoon.  But before I get into it, let’s remember that when The Social Network was up for Oscar the whisper campaign was “David Fincher is desperate for an Oscar.” Does anyone remember that ridiculous meme? Does anyone remember how the press totally bought it, neatly sliced and packaged for consumption as it was? A piece of meat they could cook without knowing where it really came from? Yeah. Meanwhile, the other side, the lil’ David, the scrappy underdog that could, looks outwardly desperate for an Oscar — not because they’re power hungry, mind you, but because gosh, they’re just good guys who did good work! They can’t believe their success so they show up everywhere, campaign harder and more they campaign, the more they “want it” the more they win. And they are never called desperate — they’re called lucky.  Funny, isn’t it?

Once these car wrecks start, though, there isn’t any way you can stop-motion — the Titanic is moving towards the iceberg and there ain’t a damned thing you can do about it.  Maybe after the festivities end, the balloons deflate and the erections fade and the hearts stop pumping love-blood will anyone notice the wreckage.

This year, the Lincoln team had a film that went to the White House at the behest of President Obama. Why? Because Lincoln, it’s worth noting, is Obama’s favorite president. The only two books he brought into the White House with him were the Bible and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  Not only did Obama watch it but so did the senators. Why? Because it’s worth remembering what it took, how difficult it was, to do something as simple as passing a Constitutional Amendment that guarantees something that should never have been taken away from any American, of African heritage or otherwise, to begin with: freedom.

Even some Republicans saw fit to watch Lincoln.  It was a no-brainer, then, to ask President Bill Clinton, who was already in town for a charity event, to intro Lincoln at the Golden Globes.  Dreamworks wasn’t the only studio in town trying to get Clinton. But no one will go on the record about that.  Many people were trying to get him to appear at the Globes but no one really had a good enough in — except, of course, Spielberg whose support and donations to the Hillary Clinton campaign go way back.  So if Team Argo had done it — you think Ben Affleck doesn’t have as many powerful friends you haven’t been following the news — it would have looked like “scrappy underdog that could upstages almighty Lincoln at Globes with Clinton!” The buzz that followed would have been something like “Clinton must not have liked Lincoln otherwise he would have intro’d Lincoln.”

Either way, I appeared to be the only one excited about that intro. Not because it might mean Lincoln could have won the Globe — are you kidding? But because it was Bill Clinton period.  And because he called Lincoln “extraordinary.”  People who think Spielberg called in a favor are calling Bill Clinton a whore and a liar. But hey, all’s fair when it comes to winning Oscars right? Now who’s desperate?

The morning after the Globes, someone tattled to Deadline who were more than willing to splay out the story to stop any potential bump Lincoln might have gotten from that intro — I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion — and eventually, it evolved into this, the narrative from the Huffington Post:

Hey Chris, yeah, it’s hard to feel bad for Steven Spielberg ever, but I’m starting to have a little sympathy. Somehow, trotting out Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and his weirdly horny parents (did you seethat 60 Minutes interview?) wasn’t enough to persuade Academy voters that “Lincoln” deserves a place among “Grand Hotel,” “Ben-Hur” and his own “Schindler’s List” in the Best Picture pantheon. Our Oscar Predictions Dashboard now gives “Lincoln” a measly 15.8% chance of winning the category, compared with “Argo”‘s gaudy 83.5%, and I think you’re right that we now have to ask if Spielberg can even claim Best Director.

Weirdly horny parents? Grand Hotel and Ben-Hur?  Dude, Spielberg isn’t the one you should feel sorry for. He’s actually out there creating art.  While you and me, we’re just sitting on the sidelines with our thumbs up our asses helping paint a narrative that exposes, really, the worst human beings have to offer. So let’s do the math. Spielberg creating the best things humans have to offer — a movie about a great president, a prolific successful director, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright whose screenplay is so beautifully written if you take the time to actually read it it breaks your heart, an actor who did something I’ve never seen an actor do in a movie — and you and me, awards bloggers spitting in our palms, rubbing it together and pretending anything we think matters. Yeah, and it’s you who feels sorry for Spielberg.

Every year you think you can stay on top of this stuff, and that it will only be about the movie. The funny part of this year was that there is actually a true blue scrappy underdog that could in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild which was made for $1.8 million.  Has anyone checked to see if any movie ever nominated for Picture and Director was made on such a shoestring budget? But sadly, there is no narrative that can be applied to a filmmaker no one knows.

If you haven’t yet been soured by this year’s Oscar race, you’re lucky. If you still see it as just a fair competition to see which film gets the most votes or the usual sloppy refrain, “maybe they just liked that movie better,” then you haven’t been paying attention. Look around at those who’ve been campaigning the hardest and ask yourself why they never got the “desperate to win” label? Spielberg has already won two Oscars for directing. Does anyone really think he’s “desperate” for a third? If anything, Spielberg is desperate, if it makes you feel more normal to use that word, to win an Oscar for his lifetime producing partner Kathleen Kennedy who holds the record for most nominations and no wins, who took time out to have kids on a ticking down biological clock the same year Spielberg happened to win big for Schindler’s List.  Does Kennedy want an Oscar? Does anyone deserve an Oscar MORE? But her career is fine without one. Trust me, if you’re a woman in this business you’re already used to doing all the work and never taking any of the credit.

Spielberg made Lincoln over the course of 13 years not to win Oscars. How small-minded do you have to be to think, at this stage in his career, he would be desperate for the approval of people who give as much consideration to what should win Best Picture as they do when they open up Facebook and see the hundredth picture of a kitten in a cup?

I used to think there was such a thing as a “deserving” winner.  This year, with so many great films there are many deserving winners.  Amour is deserving. Life of Pi is deserving. Zero Dark Thirty is deserving. Beasts of the Southern Wild is deserving. The reason that I’ve fought for Lincoln is because it was such a tough sell to begin with — a talky film about ideas does not equal kitten in a cup.

So what were they so afraid of? Why the need to smear Bill Clinton’s good name and Spielberg all at once? Afraid of those 12 nominations? Afraid of a period piece because it’s usually Oscar catnip? There’s no visible disability, no stutter, no cathartic climax — just a jarring death of a president gone too soon.  Even when the film wasn’t winning awards it was still the object of scorn. Were they afraid of it or did they just need a Goliath to help drive the narrative that, once again, it’s delicious to watch an underdog beat a frontrunner?

I started my website in 1999 as a single mother, broke, with a new baby to support. We were living in a one room shack behind my sister’s house. I had a Mac G4 and a modem.  I also had the internet.  I’ve been at it for 14 years but the truth is that, for some reason, this year has made me wonder whether I can actually take it anymore. I’ve seen too much and what I’ve seen is not pretty.  I was never under any illusions that the Oscar game was fair. But somehow I never thought, in a million years, it would never amount to people calling Bill Clinton a whore and a liar.

The trick is not minding, my readers remind me.  You just have to not get so personally invested, another friend says. The Oscar race isn’t about you, I tell myself. You shouldn’t care so much how it turns out — after all, you always say how worthless all of it ultimately is. Every other Oscar predictor doesn’t care how it turns out.  If you care that much you shouldn’t be doing this job.  And that last one I agree with.

Thing is, I can take people “just liking another movie more.” What I can’t take is the need to then make it all worse by smearing the good name of admirable people in the name of those awards. No Oscar is worth that.  Sometimes I think that if what it takes to win film awards means playing that dirty? How worthwhile can those awards actually be?  And the answer is…