“The formulas don’t work,” says awards consultant Lisa Taback, reflecting on the two most recent Academy Award Best Picture winners, Spotlight and Moonlight, which felt like long-shots for the Oscar stage when they first started their journeys.
There are no easy paths to awards glory, she insists. “It really comes down to the individual film and filmmaker. The fun part is to venture in and figure out what the narrative is going to be, and to stick with that even as the world spins, and you have to shift your campaign.”
Taback and her team at LTLA Communications are among the leaders in the awards-season publicity game, and they worked on the campaigns for both films, transforming them from indie festival darlings into Best Picture triumphs. “A movie like Spotlight could easily have been lost,” Taback admits. “I can’t do what I do without starting with a great movie, but the hardest thing is keeping the momentum alive. The other key films that year, The Revenant and The Big Short, had much, much bigger budgets. They dwarfed us. And we didn’t have a lot of access to talent. The real reporters were rock stars to us—they were the heroes—but try booking reporters as your talent; not easy.”
Instead, Taback and her team leaned into the story behind the movie. “We had to be respectful of the truth and never exploit it. We let the words be our star.” With Moonlight, that story was very different, but Taback’s strategy still favored a focus on the heart and meaning behind Barry Jenkins’ ode to the resilience of love. “Both films had great stories,” she says, simply. “There’s a lot of integrity in both of them and they’re wonderful movies, but they’ve also both been films you’re cheering for—there’s a rooting factor. I think that is part of the DNA of a Best Picture.”
In 2017, awards consultants sit at the coalface of strategy and communication as the long road to the Dolby Theatre twists and turns. Like several of her contemporaries—including Cynthia Swartz, Tony Angellotti and Karen Fried—Taback emerged from the Miramax Films school of Oscar campaigning in the 1990s, where, under Harvey Weinstein, the outside-the-box thinking that now defines the race first gestated.
Taback continued to work with Weinstein after establishing LTLA in 1999, as an outside consultant for Miramax and The Weinstein Company. But following an acrimonious split in 2014, she now chooses to work with the upstart distributors who have challenged Weinstein’s dominance in recent years: the likes of A24, Open Road and Netflix.
As the Weinstein-trained elite of awards consultancy went their separate ways and turned strategic campaigning into a cottage industry—all of them applying their own approaches—the races have become ever more competitive. All of Taback’s contemporaries are disruptive forces in the new landscape of awards campaigning, though her hand in Moonlight and Spotlight—not to mention last year’s other big front-runner, La La Land—is why she has made our list this year.
“I’m super-competitive about a movie doing well,” Taback says, “but I’m not super-competitive about beating someone. Am I a ruthless tiger about kicking someone out of the way? No. My strategy has never been that. There are great people out there who are ruthless, but I think my strategy has been to be tireless. I’ll take clever over nasty any day of the week. But we all have different ways of getting to the finish line.”
It’s a good thing, she believes, that one company no longer dominates the Oscar race. “It means that more films get seen and can become a part of the rhythm of the campaign.”
And with the rise of broadband and social media, campaigns aren’t as costly as they once were. “You’re able to [easily] launch trailers and behind-the-scenes footage. You’re even able to send links for your movies. You’re able to do a lot more that costs a lot less.”
Taback cautions that she doesn’t believe in a magic bullet. She retired from the Moonlight campaign in phase two to focus on La La Land, when it became clear she could no longer adequately fly the flag for both of the eventual Best Picture front-runners. “I don’t think a year ago, anybody was feeling as though a $1.5 million indie film that took place in Liberty City, Florida, and a musical that started on a freeway off-ramp in LA, were really going to be the films that were going to be duking it out for Best Picture.”
Nevertheless, she says, “Being in this business for as long as I have has helped me think about all the possible outcomes. Sometimes there are outcomes that aren’t obvious, and you have to think beyond what’s on the table.”