It’s a small fraternity, its members are seasoned, skilled, well paid — and perpetually panicked, and this year with good reason. Their job is to manage the awards campaigns for studios and indies and the campaign circuit this year, more than ever, resembles a minefield.
The Q&A sessions have barely started and already there have been tensions about #MeToo, the N-word, credits, diversity and even Netflix’s ubiquitous algorithms. “This year it can be Time’s Up for your film even before you start,” advised one veteran campaigner.
A case in point: The scrupulously liberal Viggo Mortensen apologized last week for uttering the N-word at a Q&A session about his film, Green Book. He was trying to explain that no one ever uses the word any more, unlike in 1961 when his film was set. Coincidentally, a top Netflix executive had just been fired for a similar inadvertency.
The ubiquitous Q&A sessions pose a special problem in that no one knows what questions to expect. The audiences are usually quietly adulatory, for example, but given the formidable list of addiction dramas this year (involving everyone from Bradley Cooper to Lucas Hedges to Timothée Chalamet), actors are warned to avoid references either endorsing or denigrating drug use – even weed or aspirin.
On a totally different level, Netflix is instructing its filmmakers to avoid getting sucked into questions involving analytics or algorithms, especially as they affect marketing or choice of product. These issues are stirring vigorous arguments within Netflix itself. Jane Fonda’s image briefly disappeared from a campaign (for her TV series Grace and Frankie) because algorithms suggested audiences favored co-star Lily Tomlin.
Netflix also figures in another source of frustration this year. Campaign managers complain that filmmakers are so busy making Netflix films that they don’t have time to promote them – and some have a talent for it. While a select few directors are gifted at the give-and-take (Adam McKay and Peter Farrelly, for example), others may unintentionally hurt their projects. The classic case cited by advisers: Darren Aronofsky’s pedantic lectures last year detailing biblical allegories and metaphors in mother!.
In my personal experience attending Q&A sessions, past and present, I find intriguing questions rarely are asked. I’d like to ask Alfonso Cuarón why he zealously refused to show anyone (including his actors) a script for Roma. Usually this is done by directors who don’t want to reveal a surprise ending (there was none in Roma) or when the script is still unfinished (Woody Allen’s frequent ploy). So, Alfonso, why the secret?
I would like to ask Orson Welles whether he could explain the plot of The Other Side of the Wind (alas he isn’t around to answer). I’d ask John Krasinski whether it’s true his financiers wanted to insert a rock ‘n’ roll score into his silent sleeper A Quiet Place. I’d ask David Mackenzie what he thinks of film critics – last year he got over-the-top praise for Hell or High Water and this year got over-slammed for Outlaw King (“a monotonous slog,” said the New York Times).
There are filmmakers of years past I would like to have questioned. Why did Francis Coppola insist that a real dead horse be placed on the bed in The Godfather when he could have used a fake one? Was Alfred Hitchcock really so paranoid about his plot in Psycho that he bought every single published copy of the book on which it was based? What was that monkey doing in the first scene of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (Wilder hinted it was involved in an illicit romantic relationship).
On the other hand, I suppose most of these questions are better left unanswered. After all, in years gone by filmmakers were not expected ever to hit the campaign circuit to advance the fortunes of their projects. They left that sort of work to politicians, who build entire careers on misrepresenting their work.