7 Women In Hollywood On What It's Really Like To Campaign For An Oscar
In September, Brad Pitt told Entertainment Weekly that he was "gonna abstain" from campaigning for awards consideration for his roles in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Ad Astra. "I find chasing it actually a disservice to the purity of your telling a story," he said. A sincere and noble stance? Perhaps. But he's Brad Pitt. He doesn't need to convince Academy voters to watch his movies; they're going to pay attention to him whether he plays the game or not.
For contenders without that luxury, campaigning means attending a steady stream of screenings (and lunches and dinners and parties), giving countless interviews, and shaking an ungodly number of hands. The footrace lasts months, starting roughly in September, continuing through nominations in January, and ending just before the Academy Award ceremony in February or March.
"[It's] a lot of work," says Hannah Beachler, the Black Panther production designer who made Oscars history twice last year as the first African American nominee and winner in her category. "It's a little like being a politician." Big money included. According to one 2019 estimate, a competitive awards season campaign can cost studios up to $30 million per film, with last year's Oscar heavy hitters A Star Is Born, Roma, and First Man all reportedly spending around the $20 to $30 million range for consideration in multiple categories. Susan Sarandon once argued for "campaign finance reform" for that very reason, pointing out that massive funding gives certain films an unfair advantage; Evan Rachel Wood recently tweeted a similar sentiment.
Yet in 2011, Melissa Leo was criticized for using her own money to take out "For Your Consideration" ads for her supporting role in The Fighter. At 50, she was struggling to land magazine covers (coveted real estate for a front-runner at the time) — so she paid out of pocket for what were essentially glam shots that ran with the word "Consider" in trade publications. "I took matters into my own hands," she told one reporter. "This entire awards process to some degree is about pimping yourself out," she told another. She wasn't wrong. She landed the nomination, and won the award.
Put more diplomatically, though, the process is about self-promotion. And for every Brad Pitt who doesn't want or need to advocate for himself, there's a Melissa Leo — or a Gwendoline Christie, the Game of Thrones star who submitted herself for an Emmy nomination — who does. "I worked really hard," Christie said of her decision. "And I really wanted to possibly have more opportunities."
Here, seven Hollywood women share their stories from the awards season campaign trail.
Hannah Beachler, Production Designer
Won the Oscar for Best Production Design for Black Panther in 2019, making her the first African American to win in the category. She was also the first African American nominated in the category.
I knew if I got the nomination, it would be history-making, so I felt a sense of duty to do what I needed to do to go that far. But there's no playbook for campaigning. Mentally, I can't even describe it. It's full-on and it's a lot of work. I was stressed out. I lost a lot of weight. [Luckily,] I'm a people person, so it was easy for me to speak to people and I had a great time with that. But you kind of have impostor syndrome, like, "Well, obviously the Oscar doesn't mean that much if I get the nomination."
A superhero film like Black Panther was not [your typical nominee], so people were curious. They came straight out and said to me, "So what did you do? It's all VFX [visual effects], right?" I knew immediately that was the thing I was going to have to tell people: "Yes, there is VFX. But what you see, we built." So there were materials created — booklets, ads — so people could understand how much we created practically.
"You kind of have impostor syndrome a little bit. Like, 'Obviously the Oscar doesn't mean that much if I get the nomination.'"
I am a human being, so you better believe that I looked [at my odds] occasionally. I think when I got the ADGs [Art Directors Guild Award], that night was the first time I really thought to myself, like, I could actually get the nomination. This is real.
It was [also] sort of this bittersweet [experience]. Like, I want to celebrate, but it's also been 91 years [without an African American nominee in the category]. Like, Ya'll. There's that thing that hangs over the Academy. How do you reconcile that?
I think I learned [through campaigning] that it was OK to recognize that I'm good at what I do. And that's such a hard thing to say. I don't know why. It's like you go through the 12 Steps of Oscardom and I'm at, like, Step 9 where I'm like, "I deserved it, goddamn it." I know I work hard. I broke ground.
Rayka Zehtabchi, Director
Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2019 for her film Period. End of Sentence., which follows Indian women as they fight to break the taboo around menstruation.
There were times [during campaigning] where I felt like, "I have no business being here. I feel like I'm so young and out of place, and so not Hollywood." [But] I think I was really empowered throughout the process. If I look at my experience early on, I might have been a little bit more careful and edited. But later in the campaign, I was kind of like, "This is who I am. I know why I'm in this."
I think the most challenging thing is when you start to do so many interviews each day, and you're answering the same questions over and over again. I'm not used to telling different people the same thing a million times. You don't want it to be very rehearsed. You want to keep it organic and ensure that you're still peppering in some new things.
"I felt like, 'I have no business being here. I feel like I'm so young and out of place, and so not Hollywood.'"
The funny thing is, you're having a lot of conversations with a lot of men. And I don't think we even really knew what the ideology was towards menstruation in America until we were nominated and there was an article — some writer saying, "There's no way this film's going to win because menstruation’s gross and no one wants to watch a film about that." So that was the first moment where we were like, "Oh my gosh. We feel like we're in the most liberal part of the country, in the most liberal pocket, which is the entertainment industry, and yet we still have people who think like this."
So for me, going on the stage [at the Oscars] and saying, "I'm not crying because I'm on my period" — which, I was on my period, whether that affected my crying or not, I don't know, because I cry no matter what. But me going on the stage and owning the fact that I was on my period and owning the fact that a film about menstruation just won, I think that, for me, was the pinnacle.
Liz Hannah, Screenwriter
Co-wrote The Post, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Golden Globes in 2018, with Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer.
Campaigning is a very strange thing, particularly for a writer. You're used to sitting at your computer by yourself or talking to maybe 20 people at most, and all of a sudden you're thrust into something where you're having to talk to people all the time.
[My co-writer] Josh [Singer] had been through it, so it was amazing to have a partner in crime, somebody who could walk you through the madness and be there to have a drink with you at the end of the day. And it is madness. It's every day, every night, different parties, different screenings. But it's sort of wonderful madness, because you get to meet and talk to people who you never would have met or talked to before. Aaron Sorkin is an enormous hero of mine and I got to meet him and have conversations with him. You become this other person that barely sleeps and lives on this bananas schedule, but the best part is you talk about something you're really proud of.
"You become this other person that barely sleeps and lives on this bananas schedule, but the best part is you talk about something you're really proud of."
One thing that was interesting: We would notice that men would ask Josh about the politics and ask me about Kay Graham [the Washington Post publisher played by Meryl Streep]. Very predictable. So I would just start talking about politics and Josh would start talking about Kay Graham. I really do have to credit Josh, because he was just as annoyed as I was that I wasn't being asked questions about politics or about the government.
I was really lucky that there were other women in the category — Emily Gordon [The Big Sick], Greta Gerwig [Lady Bird], and Vanessa Taylor [The Shape of Water]. I don't think any of us want to be called "female writers"; I think we just want to be called "writers." And so the fact that there was more than one woman in the category made it less of a conversation.
Elsie Fisher, Actress
Starred in Eighth Grade, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, Musical or Comedy, in 2019, when she was 15 years old.
No one was ever like, "OK, we're campaigning now." It was just like, every week, "So you're doing phoners Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and interviews in person on Monday and Tuesday, and then you're flying to New York and Atlanta." It was a whirlwind, but one of the most enjoyable whirlwinds possible, because I felt a deep connection with the film.
I'm a pretty typical teenager, and even though I've had to be on a stage many times in my life, I get terrible, terrible stage fright. It was awesome to go to all these wonderful parties and be recognized and meet incredible people, but it also sucked at the same time, because I'm like, "I don't want to feel this way 24/7, like shaking and terrified" — even though I know I shouldn't be, because honestly all of it was so fun.
"I almost [think] child actors should not be allowed to do press and go to parties. But as long as you have good parents and good people on your side, you'll turn out OK."
I've been asked in interviews, "How are you going to avoid turning out like those crazy Disney stars who grew up and did drugs?" People hate on child stars who grow up and have it rough, and I empathize with them, because they went through stuff that's very similar to my situation, and unfortunately they didn't have a support group like I do. It's awesome being an actor as a kid, and being able to have this career and travel, but I almost [think] child actors should not be allowed to do press and go to parties. But as long as you have good parents and good people on your side, you'll turn out OK, hopefully!
Overall, I'm definitely way more confident than I used to be, and a lot of that is thanks to the positions I've been put in and the exposure therapy I went through. It's not something I realized had happened to me until nearing the end of [the campaign], like, "Oh, wow, I'm way better about handling this because I've had to be in high-stakes scenarios many times." I got through it, I did it, and I'm good.
Dana Perry, Producer
Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2015 for her film Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which spotlights the work of counselors at the main veterans' crisis hotline in Canandaigua, New York. She previously directed the documentary Boy, Interrupted, about her 15-year-old son's struggle with bipolar disorder and his death by suicide.
Publicity is not my forte by any stretch. I can't tell you how much it's not in my nature to be self-promotional. I think for women it's especially difficult because we feel like we have to work harder and prove ourselves, and we shouldn't toot our own horn — that's a guy thing. And then also given the subject matter [of our documentary], it's not something you really want to scream and shout about.
So we worked with HBO's in-house publicists. They have a well-oiled machine that puts you out where you need to be [in order] to be seen and heard — on radio, in print, doing interviews, and that sort of thing. We were just flabbergasted that we were even considered to be that kind of material. So I embraced it.
"We were just flabbergasted that we were even considered to be that kind of material."
There was also a really nice gathering at Diane von Furstenberg's house for all the female nominees. Meryl Streep was there. I met her a few times that week and she asked me about the film and she said, "That was in Canandaigua, wasn't it?" I was like, "WHAT? You watched it?" She did. And when I caught her eye in the audience when I was on stage accepting the award, I suddenly felt OK.
Ruth E. Carter, Costume Designer
Won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for Black Panther in 2019, making her the first African American nominee to take home the award. She’d previously been nominated for Malcolm X (in 1993) and Amistad (in 1998).
When I was nominated for Malcolm X, very few people asked me anything [while campaigning]. And for Amistad, I feel like there was hardly even a party to go to. The Black Panther Oscar race was a lot more intense. I felt the front-runner buzz. I had more people wanting to interview me and Vanity Fair doing videos and people coming in and out of my house with camera equipment.
"The number one person in the campaign is you. Make sure you know who you are and when not to get mixed up in the minutiae."
I've been saying [to people who want campaigning advice], "Don't burn yourself out." I remember running through the parking lot at UCLA in heels, buttoning my blouse, because I had agreed to do a panel and [had] one that went over just before it, and I had to dress a certain way for the UCLA panel. That's when I felt like I had reached my end. It was a lot.
I think it's very important if you're in this race to be yourself and not worry so much about being at every event, having hair and makeup done for everything. The studios will send you glam every time you're out there, and sometimes you can say, "No, I don't need it," and just sit there as yourself. You'll feel better. Really, the number one person in the campaign is you.
Rachel Morrison, Cinematographer
Nominated for Best Cinematography for Mudbound at the 2018 Oscars, making her the first woman to be nominated in the category.
I have successfully stayed out of the spotlight my entire career. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than a compliment; I turn beet red. And [with the nomination], I was thrust into the spotlight. One interview leads to a few interviews and, suddenly, the floodgates open.
Maybe this isn't true for directors or producers, but for the below-the-line campaigns, I feel like we're almost kept in the dark. We don't know how much they're spending on us, or what they're doing to promote us. It's more just like, you flip a page in American Cinematographer and you see your picture in an ad. Or, in my case, you get a text from somebody telling you they saw your face a mile high on a billboard. And you're just like, What? Nobody told me they were putting my picture on a billboard. It feels like this weird, alternative reality.
"Nobody told me they were putting my picture on a billboard. It feels like this weird, alternative reality."
I think because I was the first female nominated in that category, [the focus] quickly became about being a female DP and about being an anomaly. It became about being some kind of superhero, which I'm not. There are so many great female DPs who should have had this recognition a long time ago. As long as I could pivot and talk about the work itself, I could find a sweet spot of comfort.
You try to be grateful for the attention, and then use it to say something meaningful or positive. In the last year, I've found a voice speaking about work-life balance and being a working mother, and the number of women who've come up to me and said that they decided to pick up a camera or have a kid because of me being public about it — it makes any discomfort worthwhile a million times over.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.