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The 2014 Oscars: Cutthroat Campaigns and the Little Movies That Could

Joe Pichirallo knows movies. Now the chair of undergraduate film and television at Tisch, he previously worked for HBO Pictures, Searchlight Pictures, and Universal’s Focus Features before producing for the Gold Co. and Overbrook Entertainment. So when NYU Stories was looking for an insider’s take on this year’s Oscars, we knew whom to call.

Between screenings at Sundance, Pichirallo chatted with us about studio politics, this year’s biggest snub, and why it really is an honor just to be nominated.

Oscar statue

Oprah, Tom Hanks, the Coen Brothers—this year’s Oscar buzz seems to be focused more on who was left out than who was nominated. Which surprised you most?
Obviously, here at Sundance, where Robert Redford is known as the father of the festival, there’s a lot of talk about All Is Lost not getting nominated. One explanation is that these days many of the people who vote on the nominations don’t actually see the films in the theater—they just watch DVDs at home. I’m told that All Is Lost, because it has no dialogue and is mostly a visual movie, is not fully appreciated on DVD. Another reason is that Redford, who’s 77 now, didn’t really campaign for nominations and therefore didn’t get a lot of the good will one receives for doing that. Voters want to feel that you’re cultivating their attention.

How did this whole Oscars campaign movement start?
In the ’90s, Harvey and Bobby Weinstein’s Miramax (then an up-start independent film company, though eventually bought by Disney) figured out that you could proactively campaign for Oscars in ways that had not really been done before. Then suddenly films that were not mass-market movies started getting nominations and winning, and the big established Hollywood studios were taken aback. They realized that to be competitive in this arena, they’d have to do their own campaigning, so it’s become very competitive. Now it’s people vying to build interest and momentum by competing in a whole series of intermediate contests—Writer’s Guild, SAG Awards, Golden Globes—before the Academy Awards. There are people who make a living as expert Oscar campaign managers—so there’s a lot going on behind the scenes leading up to Oscar night.

Are the awards as meaningful as they used to be?
It’s taken on more of a horseracing quality. Still, the Academy has 6,000 members, and I think everyone recognizes that though it’s not a perfect system, the Oscars at least represent the point-of-view of a significant body of people working in the industry.

Which nominees are you rooting for?
What’s encouraging this awards season is that outside wealthy investors who are serious about working in the movie business have provided money to support movies that otherwise would have struggled to get made. One example is Megan Ellison, whose father is the founder of Oracle. Two movies nominated for Best Picture—Her and American Hustle—were financed primarily by her company. 12 Years a Slave, not a mass-market movie but an interesting, challenging movie, also received support from another outside financer. So if you look at this year’s Best Picture nominations, most are not in the top-ten highest grossing films of the year, but it’s heartening to know they were made and did reasonably well at the box office. Nebraska, American Hustle, Her, and Dallas Buyers Club … creatively and artistically those are more interesting than the more commercial films getting big budgets and big box-office grosses.

How did American Hustle nab a whopping 10 nominations?
Argo broke some ground last year because it upended conventional wisdom that said a movie about that kind of story set in the ’70s wouldn’t find that much of an audience. But the time period became an asset. It won Best Picture, and Ben Affleck won Best Director. This year American Hustle is sort of in that same vein.

Most of us will only ever see the Academy Awards on TV. Is being nominated and going there a dream come true—or just nerve-racking?
The first time I went was for a film called Quills (2000). It was a big thrill, you know? I’m a guy from New Jersey, so to go to the Oscars was just great. I haven’t won Best Picture yet—but maybe I will at some point.

—Eileen Reynolds

Click here for a comedic take on the Oscars from Tisch's Chris Chan Roberson.

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