Peter Bart: Oscar Campaign Gurus Already Warning Of Q&A Minefields

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? 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? 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). There are filmmakers of years past I would like to have questioned.
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. The ubiquitous Q&A sessions pose a special problem in that no one knows what questions to expect.
Coincidentally, a top Netflix executive had just been fired for a similar inadvertency. He was trying to explain that no one ever uses the word any more, unlike in 1961 when his film was set. 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.
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. These issues are stirring vigorous arguments within Netflix itself. 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.
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). 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).
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.
Netflix also figures in another source of frustration this year. 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. 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. The classic case cited by advisers: Darren Aronofsky’s pedantic lectures last year detailing biblical allegories and metaphors in mother!.
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). I’d like to ask Alfonso Cuarón why he zealously refused to show anyone (including his actors) a script for Roma. So, Alfonso, why the secret? In my personal experience attending Q&A sessions, past and present, I find intriguing questions rarely are asked.
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.
After all, in years gone by filmmakers were not expected ever to hit the campaign circuit to advance the fortunes of their projects. On the other hand, I suppose most of these questions are better left unanswered. They left that sort of work to politicians, who build entire careers on misrepresenting their work.” />