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And the Oscar goes to ... the best dirty tricks campaign


Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

It has been a great 12 months for movies – and a truly vintage awards season for dirty tricks, whisper campaigns and trash-talking.

As the A-listers prepare to walk the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday, the final shots have been fired in the annual Dirty War that has become as synonymous with the Oscars as crying and remembering to thank your high-school drama teacher.

It seems that each year, as soon as a major movie begins to generate Oscar heat, damaging stories appear from unknown sources, forcing the studios and producers to retaliate with their own spin. And actors, directors and even the real-life subjects can often find themselves caught up in the politics.

It's a trend that started when the "indies" started taking on the big studios in the early '90s. And it has escalated in the intervening years. In 2009, front-running picture Slumdog Millionaire was hit by allegations that the producers had exploited child actors in India (it still won Best Picture). Producer Christian Colson immediately refuted the claims saying the two kids, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, were paid three times the average local adult salary for 30 days' work, as well as being enrolled in school and set up with fund accounts that they would receive until they turned 18.

In 2003, Nicole Kidman had to deny rumours of an affair with her Cold Mountain co-star Jude Law. The rumours mysteriously surfaced in the run-up to the Oscars voting.

This year, 12 Years A Slave, seen as the Best Picture front-runner, has been the target of negative stories in the press on the basis that its script (or even the source material, Solomon Northup's 19th-Century memoir of being sold into captivity) plays fast and loose with the facts.

Rival Best Picture-nominated Wolf of Wall Street has also been hit by an avalanche of bad publicity, with a video surfacing recently showing lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio praising former Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort (the subject of the movie) as a "shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work".

Many of the thousands of people who were swindled out of their life savings by Belfort would not share DiCaprio's opinion. And they have launched a highly effective campaign, which may have ended director Martin Scorsese's hopes of getting the Best Picture gong.

Yet another Best Picture nominee, Captain Phillips, has been dogged by stories that appeared in the US media at the start of the awards season, brutally calling into question the bravery of its real-life hero.

Those stories (including a New York Post piece headlined "Crew Members: 'Captain Phillips' Is One Big Lie") were immediately dismissed by the studio and many of those involved in the real-life drama.

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But the anonymous nature of the negative stories (no actual crew member went on the record for the NY Post piece) reveals the shady nature of what often amount to little more than high-profile whisper campaigns.

The man seen as the master of the dark arts when it comes to Oscar lobbying is the legendary, hard-charging, often controversial Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein, the producer who shook up the movie industry with his Miramax company in the '90s, is the man credited with inventing the modern Oscar campaign. This is the guy who got Shakespeare In Love enough votes to beat Saving Private Ryan to Best Picture.

And this year, Harvey has been fighting hard, promoting an Oscar contender with strong Irish connections, Philomena.

Philomena Lee, the Irish woman portrayed by Judi Dench in the tale of a mother's search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption, (four nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress for Dench) went to Washington DC at the end of last month to talk to two US senators about adoption legislation reform. She was in the US at the invitation of Harvey Weinstein, who also brought her to the Golden Globes, the warm-up event for the Oscars.

The real-life Philomena was there to push for making adoption records more easily accessible. These are rights, as the many film fans who have seen the movie will know, she has personally fought hard for. Ms Lee also arrived in the US as the final ballot papers were being mailed to the 6,000 Academy members.

The movie's distributor, Weinstein, cut his Oscar teeth with another movie set in Ireland. In 1990, in the midst of a then innovative campaign to get My Left Foot as much Oscar traction as possible, Weinstein arranged for star Daniel Day-Lewis, who played disabled Irish writer Christy Brown, to testify in the US Senate in support of the Disability Act.

As Weinstein later confirmed, there was a very imaginative push to boost the Oscar chances of the independently produced movie, which included ads in the trade papers and special, invite-only screenings of the Dublin-set movie for academy members all over the US. And it certainly helped. Despite being relative unknowns (to US audiences at least) Day-Lewis and co-star Brenda Fricker both won Oscars.

Years later, Weinstein talked about the My Left Foot experience with author Peter Biskind for his best-seller, Down And Dirty Pictures. "In those days, the studios had a lock on the Oscars, because none of the indies campaigned aggressively," said Weinstein.

"The only thing that we did to change the rules was, rather than just sitting it out and getting beat because somebody has more money, more power, more influence, we ran a guerrilla campaign."

Now, studios will employ "Oscar Strategists" to run their awards campaigns. These are highly aggressive PR people who know who the Academy members are and how to get to them. The studios and distributors spend big bucks on their Oscar campaigns. The average is said to be around $5m, with around $3m going on marketing and $2m on entertainment and travel costs.

Any breath of controversy or politics (at least of the "difficult" kind) can be a problem with the notoriously conservative Academy voters. Politics can be contentious. But securing the blessing of a political heavyweight can also give your film an Awards Season boost. In recent years, movies including Lincoln, The Help and Mandela; Long Walk To Freedom have all been given a special screening at the White House. And this season DiCaprio took time out from promoting his movie in the US to visit the White House and present a special screening copy to President Obama.

However, even the Leader of the Free World has been caught up in the Oscar campaign controversy.

Just before Christmas, the White House had to deny rumours that the President's handlers had advised him to halt official screenings during Awards Season. Some of the President's Hollywood friends were said to be unhappy that he appeared to favour Harvey Weinstein movies above those from other studios.

When it comes to Oscar controversy, it seems Weinstein can get even the President of the United States into trouble.

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