This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Never trust the teller, trust the tale," author D.H. Lawrence once instructed. By that, he meant a book -- or any other work of art like, say, a movie -- should stand on its own. You shouldn't have to turn to whoever made it to explain it.
But don't tell that to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which this year for the first time has begun hosting filmmaker Q&As following its weekend membership screenings. And don't waste time trying to explain the concept to awards-season strategists, either. They are eagerly lining up, happy that their Oscar hopefuls will have a chance to chat up Academy voters.
A few skeptics worry that the Academy Q&As favor the starrier entries. Already this season, Ben Affleck appeared at an overflow Academy screening of Argo. The Flight team, including Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, touched down Nov. 3. And the Lincoln brigade of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and screenwriter Tony Kushner are scheduled to appear Nov. 10. "Where else are you going to find so many Academy members all in one place?" asks one strategist. "It certainly isn't going to hurt your campaign."
In fact, while filmmaker Q&As have been around for years, the venerable format is taking on new prominence as a linchpin of this season's Oscar campaigns. During the past two years, the always clever and aggressive Weinstein Co. led the way, staging Q&As in New York that then were streamed online. This year, Paramount and DreamWorks upped the ante.
On Oct. 10, DreamWorks staged a conversation with Spielberg and Day-Lewis at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, beaming it simultaneously to AMC theaters in nine other cities. The Q&A also streamed live on Yahoo Movies, where it continues to reside. And on Oct. 15, Paramount hosted something similar for Flight -- a special screening and Q&A in New York that was satellited to five theaters on the West Coast. "We got a lot of calls afterward telling us it looked really good," says Paramount awards consultant Lea Yardum. "And it allowed us to make maximum use of really tight talent availability." The only glitch: Pleading a cold, Washington bowed out, though he later proved himself quite the trouper by braving Hurricane Sandy to visit Late Show With David Letterman.
Such maneuvers might be effective in raising a movie's profile, but they also raise the question of whether they give awards contenders with marquee names an unfair advantage -- especially because there hasn't been room on the schedule for some smaller films like Ginger & Rosa, starring Elle Fanning. Under the latest revision of its campaign rules, in an attempt to maintain a level playing field, once nominations are announced Jan. 10, its members may be invited to only four Q&As a film -- but before the noms, there are no restrictions. In effect, the Academy decided, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
"We've always been a bit concerned about treating every film fairly, so we shied away from it for a long time," says Randy Haberkamp, the Academy's managing director of programming, education and preservation. "But this is a great opportunity to allow our filmmakers to talk with other filmmakers."
Because the Academy already was screening four films a weekend for members at its 1,012-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, it decided in June, as a way of encouraging what it likes to call member engagement, to invite filmmakers -- running the gamut from producers, directors and actors to the full array of craftspeople -- to participate in 20-minute conversations. It then posts clips on Facebook, YouTube and its own site, Oscars.org.
Says Haberkamp, "The studios have been very receptive, and it's nice to see people admiring each other's work." The program might not have been designed to showcase year-end awards contenders, but strategists were quick to seize the opportunity. And so stopping by the Academy to answer a few questions is quickly becoming a must-do.
INSIDE THE ACADEMY CONVERSATIONS: So what do filmmakers talk about when they are talking to one another without journalists? At the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, there's lots of praise for colleagues and a personal revelation or two.
"Andrew [Garfield] can do intensity and lean into drama very well. Emma [Stone] comes from a very different background, a lot of improvisational comedy. She brought out a lightness in him, and he brought out something deeper in her." -- Marc Webb, director, The Amazing Spider-Man
"There aren't a lot of roles out there for women -- and definitely not for voluptuous women like myself -- but the Academy Award has afforded me the opportunity to say, 'I think I might want to play a superhero one day,' and have people not laugh." -- Octavia Spencer, actress, Smashed
"Animation filmmaking is never in context. We don't go to sets or locations with the actors and see the scene unfold. We have to create the scene and then get it in a format where we then start making those decisions that you make on the set in live action." -- Mark Andrews, director, Brave