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How foreign-language, small indies worked the system for Oscar noms

This year’s Academy Award nominations are dominated by films from deep-pocketed studios, specialty divisions and streamers. Yet as most 2021 indies were sidelined to the Spirit Awards, a few such as “Drive My Car,” “Flee,” “The Worst Person in the World” and “Writing With Fire” managed to score noms in David vs. Goliath campaign battles.

With less funding and smaller platforms, how did they do it? The awards publicity firm worth asking is Perception PR, which scored high-profile noms for indies with Joachim Trier’s Norwegian romantic comedy-drama “The Worst Person in the World” (original screenplay and international feature), distributed by Neon; Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Danish animated doc “Flee” (documentary, animated and international feature), from Neon/Participant; and a actress nom for Kristen Stewart in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” from Neon/Topic.

Several Oscar voters cited the online Academy Screening Room, now in its third year as a great equalizer to catching up with smaller films, but awards publicists still drew some of these home viewers out to in-person events. As a handful of bigger contenders lured voters with gift cards to unofficial campaign events including film or home video premieres, getting smaller films noticed on a budget has become an art in and of itself.

“Everything that an indie is doing has to be that much more targeted and specific,” says Perception partner Lea Yardum. “We might only be able to take out two trade ads, but we toil over the messaging. Or, instead of dinner after a screening, maybe we just do dessert or a daytime screening with bagels and OJ. But I don’t think that Academy members care if they’re eating a box of popcorn or lobster, [or that food] influences their vote. I believe meeting filmmakers and seeing movies on the big screen makes all the difference in the world, and the more events that a studio can produce, the better. That’s the most important thing in a campaign.”

In the fall, COVID boosters eased in-person socializing, but the emergence of the deadlier Delta variant last summer limited some voters’ appetite for mingling. And then Omicron’s December arrival shut things down almost entirely.

“We pivoted to virtual events very quickly,” Yardum says. “In 2020, we experimented with very small online events with [voters and talent]. But instead of a hundred people, we would just have 15 or 20, so it’s almost like you’ve run into them at a little cocktail party and you’re getting to have more intimate, casual conversations, as opposed to just being presented with a Q&A.”

Finding high-profile industry champions is another inexpensive way to help: Richard Curtis, Cameron Crowe and Isabelle Huppert spoke at events for “Worst Person in the World”; Huppert, Bong Joon Ho and Kimberly Peirce did the same for “Drive My Car”; Rami Malek hosted an event for his “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” co-star Stewart; and Guillermo del Toro tweeted congrats to “Flee” on its triple-crown nominations, a goal Yardum says Neon founder Tom Quinn set for the genre-bending gay immigrant saga.

Perception’s biggest coup may have been nabbing an Oscar nom for Stewart after she missed spots at the SAG and Spirit Awards. The former chooses a new nominating committee each year, making voters a moving target that doesn’t align perfectly with AMPAS members, yet Stewart did snag an Honorary Chair title at the latter. “While it’s always more comforting to have those precursor nominations, this is not a science, and we had the first-hand knowledge of how Academy voters had been responding to her performance since [the] Venice [Film Festival, where the film bowed],” Yardum says. “We did add options for voters to see the film on the big screen — since theaters weren’t full and we employed safety protocols, they felt very safe doing so — as well as virtual and hybrid options [with Q&As]. We were also setting up press opportunities and tweaking [our] media {strategy].”

The dark horse contender everyone’s been talking about is Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese drama “Drive My Car” from Sideshow and Janus Films. Many other arty, slow-paced films without well-known stars or directors have emerged from Cannes with awards and gone no further, but this three-hour tale of a director staging Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” while in mourning built mightily on its script and critics prizes to earn best picture, director, adapted screenplay and international feature Oscar noms. “There was a real turning point when the film became one of six [in history] to win New York, Los Angeles and National Society of Film Critics” best picture honors,” notes Sideshow Films founder Jonathan Sehring.

Publicists reached out to influential Oscar voters and critics to encourage them to see the film in New York and Los Angeles, hyping it as an acclaimed underdog. But while press materials listed Sideshow and Janus as the distributors, what people weren’t told (according to voters Variety interviewed) is that Sideshow was the brainchild of veteran IFC Films head Sehring; he confirmed it to IndieWire after Oscar noms were announced in February. The new distributor had a lot invested in making its first and only project a hit, utilizing social media (“the Letterboxd community was activated early on and gave invaluable support,” Sehring says) and film festivals to build word-of-mouth.

“We wanted to be smart about how we spent the P&A, and we put a lot of thought in together about how to do this with [a]great team,” Sehring says. “A group of us had been talking for a while about the importance of the theatrical release. I am close with Peter Becker and Jonathan Turrell of Criterion/Janus Films, and actually worked for their fathers at my first job with Janus Films. Criterion also distributed some of our best films at IFC Films on disc, so it was natural to partner on something like this with them. We felt giving ‘Drive My Car’ the imprimatur of Janus Films, the company that distributes Kurosawa, Fellini [and] Bergman, along with a new label, Sideshow, would be great positioning. … ‘Drive My Car’ ticked all the boxes as the exact type of film we wanted to release and felt aligned with this vision.”

This year also saw first-ever nominations for Showtime Documentary Films (Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson’s prison tale “Attica”) and doc legend Sheila Nevins’ MTV Documentary Films (Jessica Kingdon’s China study “Ascension”). But the big surprise was Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s chronicle of female Indian journalists, “Writing With Fire,” the first doc feature from India to get an Oscar nomination. It won a World Cinema Documentary audience award and special jury prize at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, yet several months later, no major distribution offers had emerged. So Thomas and Ghosh began taking it to film festivals around the world — some 120 in total. (Music Box Films acquired U.S. rights last August).

“Around September/October, a lot of people asked, ‘Are you doing an awards campaign?’ And both of us were just like, ‘What is that?’” Thomas says. They began getting advice from other filmmakers and hired a team of publicists (David Magdael and Associates, the 2050 Group, Larsen Associates and Berlin-based Claudia Tomassini + Associates), who helped them arrange Q&As and network with Academy doc branch voters and other filmmakers who frequently attend key festivals such as DOC NYC and Intl. Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA). Susan Norget Film Promotion came aboard for the film’s Nov. 26 New York City theatrical bow at Film Forum, and co-exec producer Anurima Bhargava invited filmmakers they knew to meet at a bar across the street on opening weekend.

“Our decision to do the campaign was because we knew the film would be in cinemas, so we didn’t have to spend a lot on venues, and the appetite for going out was slightly better then [before Omicron],” Thomas says. “We were taken in by the generosity of filmmakers we didn’t know, who said, ‘You should talk to so-and-so and get some advice,’ and they all said, ‘What do you want to know?’”

After “Fire” got nominated, the filmmakers shifted their limited resources to awards publicity firm JMP Verdant Communications, which helped snag doc feature Oscars for 2019’s “American Factory” and 2020’s “My Octopus Teacher.”

It’s no coincidence that all these indie nominees have an international pedigree. “First, American audiences are much more open to subtitled films after the success of films like ‘Parasite’ and series like ‘Squid Game,’ ” Sehring says. “Secondly, international voters have greatly expanded within the Academy. For them, it’s a no-brainer to vote for what they think is the best film no matter the language.”

AMPAS says international members now make up close to 25% of its 9,573 members, around 90% of whom are Oscar voters.

Both Sehring and Yardum’s teams are working with their films’ overseas distributors, and Yardum has hired consultants in Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. to reach voters.

“They’re able to provide a perspective that I’m not going to be able to give you sitting at my little desk in Studio City,” she jokes. “It really does take a village.”

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