"Garden Party" "Garden Party"

The world may be in crisis, the film industry may be in flux, yet one at least one fixture of the winter season is ploughing ahead: awards campaigning. The Oscars are happening next year, albeit two months late (on April 25) and likely in a different format from usual, and the race for a statuette is heating up.

In brief, an Oscar campaign is a sustained publicity strategy aimed at getting a film shortlisted and nominated, then making it win. A campaign for an animated short is typically mounted by experts who tour the film around animation studios (where Academy voters are concentrated), generally in the company of the filmmaker(s), while also working to boost the film’s visibility in the press and elsewhere.

Sound simple? It ain’t. Campaigning is a delicate matter, filled with pitfalls and obscure conventions. Last week, during a panel at the virtual edition of Montreal’s Les Sommets du cinéma d’animation, two veterans of the process shed light on what it takes to mount a good campaign. Christine Noël is head of marketing at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), and Benoît Berthe Siward is the founder and CEO of The Animation Showcase. Here are our main takeaways from their discussion:

Festivals remain a crucial gateway to an Oscar.

Noël gauges buzz around new NFB films at Annecy and Animafest Zagreb, and this informs which films the organization will choose to push for an Academy Award. Berthe Siward keeps a close watch on a wide range of festivals, adding that Annecy is a crucial forum for watching films and making contacts.

But they aren’t the only launchpad for an awards campaign.

Berthe Siward adds that filmmakers constantly approach him, and he ends up working with some of them. He also learns of films through word of mouth.

The filmmakers’ participation in the campaign is essential.

Voters don’t just want to see films in the running — they’re also keen to meet the directors and producers and learn about their creative process, through on-stage Q&As and informal socializing. After all, these filmmakers may end up joining them in the Academy, which Berthe Siward says is like “a big family.”

Speaking good English helps, but isn’t the be all and end all.

Of course, when on campaign, filmmakers need to be able to communicate with their audiences. Berthe Siward ensures that filmmakers he works with get a degree of media training, but he adds that not being American can be an asset: voters may be curious about your background, or even charmed by your accent.

A nomination alone can transform one’s career.

In the week leading up to the Oscar ceremony — the final stage of campaigning for nominated films — “Hollywood’s doors are wide open,” says Berthe Siward. This is the time to maximize networking with agents and potential collaborators. Both Berthe Siward and Noël speak extensively with their filmmakers to understand their career goals, and organize the campaign accordingly.

The Academy is diversifying.

Membership isn’t as dominated by coastal U.S. as it used to be, and campaigns are adapting to this. Aside from its possible implications for what gets nominated, this fact also means that speaking slick English is perhaps less important for filmmakers on campaign than it used to be.

Some publicists are dodgy.

Berthe Siward says that, early in his career, he felt misled by a publicist he worked with on campaign who didn’t quite deliver the promised services. Noël agrees that this is a risk, and suggests asking others with campaign experience to recommend good publicists.

The pandemic has pushed campaigning online.

Berthe Siward has launched a streaming service for the films he’s representing this year, which is accessible (for free) to members of the industry. Noël’s team has contacted studios individually to create bespoke formats for virtual film screenings and Q&As.

You can watch the full discussion (in French) below:

Image at top: “Garden Party,” which was nominated at the 2017 Oscars. Berthe Siward worked on its campaign.

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