A month out from the 2021 Academy Awards telecast—which airs on April 25—the battle to win the love of Hollywood has turned into the year of the crate.
Over the past few weeks, everyone from the indie studio A24 to indie stalwart Searchlight Pictures (now a division within Disney) to Universal have dispatched across town crates of artisanal food to woo their way into the hearts—and stomachs—of the Hollywood press corps, the influential body of scribes who feverishly chronicle every twist and turn in the jostle leading up to the Oscars. Netflix, which leads this year’s nominations haul with a whopping 35 nominations for films, including Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, has also been lavishing edible swag on reporters, but has become more known for gifting booze. To support Malcolm & Marie, a moody art film starring Zendaya and John David Washington—which looked like an early contender but ended up not nabbing any nominations—Netflix sent out bottles of top-drawer scotch. (I’m sure it didn’t go to waste.)
Swag and Oscar campaigning have always gone hand in hand during awards season—the three (to six) month swirl of parties, dinners, brunches, and getaways sponsored by the studios and streamers to stir up buzz for their contenders. But in a season that has been turned on its head due to COVID-19—in-person screenings have been verboten, along with glad-handling galas—studios and screening companies have had to be more creative about how to get the word out about their films. Even the fall film festivals, such as Venice and Telluride, which are traditionally relied on to build early buzz and critical acclaim for films, went virtual in 2020, lessening their ability to fuel word of mouth and serve as showboating opportunities for stars and filmmakers.
As a result, studios and streamers are coming up with new ways to transform their projects into events. Take Nomadland. The Best Picture frontrunner—it cemented this position by nabbing the top award at the Producers Guild Awards—stars Frances McDormand as a peripatetic Amazon worker who finds beauty and serenity amongst fellow RV dwellers in the American Southwest. The film premiered at festivals last fall, but when it launched on Hulu in late February and officially came out in theaters, Searchlight Pictures announced a virtual global premiere. The tactic, in part, was to keep the film feeling fresh so far along in its run, and with the delayed Oscars still a ways off. (During campaign season, the fear of peaking too soon—what many believed killed A Star is Born‘s Best Picture chances in 2019—haunts all awards publicists.) Invitees to the event were sent the aforementioned crate—stuffed with gourmet cheese, “humanly raised” salami, and trail mix—to enjoy while watching the film.
This at-home viewing party atmosphere has become de rigeur this season in an attempt to replicate the feeling and fun of an Oscar screening/gala, and to elevate the living room viewing experience beyond turning on the tube in your pajamas (though you can still do that, of course). One publicist attributed the format to Netflix, which has been throwing “virtual premieres” ever since COVID-19 hit. Invitees who RSVP “yes” to a Netflix premiere see the film show up in their Netflix preview row, and are then sent popcorn or a DoorDash coupon to enjoy with the show.
“The idea isn’t revolutionary, but it’s efficient and it’s gotten everyone to end up doing it,” this person said. “So they’re just so ahead of everybody. They have their proverbial shit together.”
Another benefit of a living room party is that it’s just about all anyone can handle a year into the pandemic. The novelty of drive-in screenings, which usually take place in parking lots at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (the boondocks for Hollywood types) has by now worn off. Although no one has discovered a clever way around virtual panels with stars and filmmakers, the word “Zoom fatigue” is alive and well in Hollywood, as it is everywhere else. Companies like Netflix have tried to fight this by signing up showy moderators for their Q&A’s: Oprah hosted one for Ma Rainey, and Cher led the discussion for Mank.
Swag, then, ups the ante. To promote The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Hulu sent a karaoke microphone and a set of (fake) pearls. To push Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Amazon sent out hats with the logo “Make America Nice Again” and the skimpy leotard immortalized by Sacha Baron Cohen’s character. Netflix sent out a 1940’s-style vinyl album and a coffee-table book to commemorate Mank, David Fincher’s black-and-white ode to Old Hollywood.
Then there are the crates. A24’s was filled with fruit in keeping with the theme of Minari, its Best Picture contender about a South Korean immigrant family that pursues the American Dream by farming a plot of land in Arkansas. Universal’s box for the Tom Hanks Western News of the World—which is up for original score and cinematography, and two technical awards—was packed with “weird food you’d get in the Old West,” according to one recipient. Alcohol, meanwhile, seems to be arriving at reporters’ homes daily from just about everyone.
Studios and streamers are forbidden from sending such delights to the 9,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, who vote on the Oscars, which means that money is still being poured into traditional advertising: print and digital “for your consideration” ads; billboards; and radio and TV spots. Everyone from Warner Bros., the studio behind Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah, to Apple, which is pushing Wolfwalkers for Best Animated feature, is papering both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, as well as trade publications, with ads. Hulu recently plastered an ad for its Best Picture contender, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, over the cover of Variety, real-estate that can go for $85,000.
Netflix has never been an awards slouch, and has gone so far as to buy an awards consultancy to help it master the art of Oscar hunting. Two years ago, it reportedly shelled out $30 million to campaign for Roma. But it does more than just spend, and has been coming up with creative strategies, too. It created a virtual music event, Netflix Playlist, highlighting its awards music and composers. It partnered with the Grammy Museum to produce a half-hour TV special as a tribute to Ma Rainey and her music—complementary viewing for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which nabbed five Oscar noms, including Best Actor for the late Chadwick Boseman, and Best Actress for Viola Davis (who also appears in the TV special).
The big question of course is whether any of this will pay off. At-home viewing, even with gourmet snacks, means that Oscar voters are watching films, well, at home. Who knows whether they’re watching them all the way through or pausing to get up to make a sandwich right when things start to get a little dreamy-sleepy as Frances McDormand cruises across a barren highway. And a hefty campaign budget doesn’t guarantee a win, as Netflix has been learning: It has yet to garner a Best Picture Oscar.
The lack of social gatherings has also meant that it’s hard to gauge which films are more in favor than others, and which performance seems to be a shoo-in. In normal times, all of this is discussed nightly, as publicists, voters, and the press bounce around town from screening to screening, cocktail hour to cocktail hour. This year, it’s all been much more muted.
On the other hand, streaming has opened up the Oscar race to a much broader audience. Anyone with a Hulu account can check out Nomadland. Amazon has Sound of Metal and Borat 2. Netflix, of course, has a dozen other contenders.
Perhaps that’s more noteworthy—and effective—when it comes to word of mouth buzz, than any crate of food.