How Washington Became a Permanent Oscar Campaign Stop

Hollywood will continue to pitch to politicos, even when the films aren't really about Washington.

Jeffrey Kurland, Governors Ball chairman, speaks to journalists on Feb. 20, 2014, at the Governor's Ball preview for the upcoming 86th Academy Awards.

This year's slate of Oscar hopefuls included Washington D.C. on their press tours, even when their connection to Washington was nebulous at best.

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If Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, it's the ugly people that are increasingly an integral part of the Hollywood film industry's promotional campaigns. 

"D.C. is filled with people who have an outsized impact on the conversation about a film," says Michael Feldman, a managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based PR firm The Glover Park Group.

“It’s been rapidly building over the last three, four, five years – how the industry views Washington,” says Jamie Shor, president of PR Collaborative, which represents films as well as the conventional Washington policy clients. “In building [this] business we wanted to demonstrate to New York and Los Angeles that Washington is not just a field market, but a wealth of opportunity for a film."

In the months leading to the Academy Awards, studios do everything they can – from press promotional tours to fancy luncheons featuring the stars of their films – to catch the attention of the voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science who chose the nominees and the ultimate winners. (A 2011 Academy rule change to limit the amount of Oscar campaigning more or less just shifted the time frame when much of it is done).  

Last year's Oscar race may have felt like an exceptional year for the intersection of Washington and Hollywood, with films with D.C.-ties like “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln,” leading the pack and hosting a number of Washington events to capitalize on their relevancy. The love affair between film and politics culminated with first lady Michelle Obama announcing the Academy Award for best picture.

[READ: Between Indonesia and the Oscars, 'The Act of Killing' Makes a Stop in D.C.]

However it is a trend that looks like it’s here to stay, even in years when the notable films aren’t explicitly about politics.

“It has less to do with the content of the films and more to do with the sophistication of the people who market and manage those properties, and the understanding who important in D.C. to direct the marketing of these films,” says Feldman, who worked in the Clinton-Gore White House before co-founding The Glover Park Group.

Indeed, another 2013 Oscar nominee, “Silver Linings Playbook,” gained its own cheerleaders in Washington even without any apparent D.C. connections. The Philadelphia-set, manic romantic dramedy found a champion in MSNBC host and #ThisTown poster boy Chris Matthews, who often plugged it on his show, and reportedly hired political strategist Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, to further push it. Vice President Joe Biden eventually hosted director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper at the White House to discuss the mental health issues presented in the film.

“We can use the news media and policy media that is absolutely centralized in D.C.to elevate these films,” Shor says.

Adds Feldman, “Increasingly the conversation about these films was happening outside of the entertainment channel, that's really where we come in and to a large extent why D.C. has become a more important market.”

Likewise, this year's slate of Oscar hopefuls included Washington D.C. on their press tours, even when their connection to Washington was nebulous at best. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Her,” “Captain Phillips” and “American Hustle” were just some of the award season contenders hosting Q & As or other events in Washington, and many of them had just as many politicos on their guest lists as they did entertainment reporters. Director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly hand-delivered a DVD copy of their obscene romp “The Wolf of Wall Street” to the White House.

Of course there are the Oscar nominees who commanded the attention of Washington in more policy-specific ways. The real-life Philomena Lee who inspired “Philomena” – up for four Academy Awards – hit Capitol Hill last month to lobby lawmakers to help her organization for Irish parents whose children who were put up for forced adoption in America.

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Last week, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., hosted a Library of Congress screening for the best documentary feature front-runner "The Act of Killing", and was so stirred by its portrayal of the Indonesian death squads of 1965 that he is calling for U.S. government action.

Kimball Stroud, a former political campaign fundraiser whose PR firm Kimball, Stroud & Associates counts film festivals and filmmakers among its clients. She says that Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s full-throated endorsement “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the military, helped propel that film (which Stroud coproduced) to an Oscar nomination last year.

“As more and more films are dealing with advocacy and social change, [filmmakers] are realizing that D.C. is a place that these films need to be seen,” Stroud says. “Policy leaders and leaders in the nonprofit world need to get behind these films.”

And that can go all the way up to the top in Washington, with presidents getting involved in promoting a film. According to Tevi Troy, author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House,” President Woodrow Wilson initiated the tradition of White House screenings with 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation.” It was written by a man Wilson knew in college who campaigned for the president to see the film. Wilson, in mourning after his wife’s passing, didn’t want to leave the White House, so it was screened there. Wilson’s alleged comments after seeing it (Troy calls them “apocryphal”) -- "It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true" – would be quoted on-screen in later prints of the film.

Politicians also realized that endorsing certain films could help with their own agendas. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill helped promote 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver,” set in rural England during the German blitz, to boost morale ahead U.S.’s entry into World War II.

The relationship between Washington and Hollywood further cemented when President Lyndon Johnson’s aide, Jack Valenti, took over as head of the Motion Picture Association of America in 1966. Former Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, now serves as its chairman and CEO.

And the tradition of White House screenings continues as well. The Obama administration has hosted official screenings of “42,” “The Help,” “Lincoln,” “Bully” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” in addition to the films the Obama family views privately. After the Nov. 20 showing of “Mandela” at the Kennedy Center, the White House sought to curb official screenings, according to The Hollywood Reporter sources, as officials were concerned that the president was becoming a pawn in the Oscar race. (Harvey Weinstein, whose company released “Mandela,” is both a major Democratic donor and a ruthless Oscar campaigner).

The White House later denied the report and will return to the tradition Tuesday with a closed-to-the-press screening of “The Monuments Men,” a film about a band of World War II art experts who recovered cultural artifacts from the Nazis, that likely won’t be up for many awards.

Just as Washington can be wary about getting too involved with films – with “the question of presidential gravitas,” as Troy puts it – there are reasons for Hollywood to be wary as well. “Zero Dark Thirty” attracted the condemnation of senators for how it portrayed torture, inciting a controversy that some believe ultimately hurt its Oscar chances.

[MORE: Meet the D.C. Characters Who Helped Create "The Monuments Men"]

“If you're dealing with a film about an issue that [policy] reporters [cover closely], it can be really great or really dangerous,” says Renee Tsao, also of PR Collaborative, especially if they find flaws in how a film presents it.

“Publicists and studios might not understand the sovereignty that journalists have over their stories,” she says.

Tsao and the publicists at other D.C. firms say their background in representing political and policy groups help them understand how to pitch films to the D.C. community, a community that – per a New York Times inquiry into the Academy’s roles last year – is home to just 21 of its 6,000 voters. But that’s besides the point.

Mike Gebert, author of the Encyclopedia of Movie Awards, says with the recent expansion of the best picture category and overall democratization of the film industry, the hardest thing is getting everyone to watch all the nominees.

“Anywhere you can get buzz rolling from is good news,” he says.

Getting that buzz rolling varies by location.

“What’s happening in L.A. is a campaign that centers around a few people, and exposing the film and the film’s talent and the filmmakers to a small electorate,” Feldman says. “In D.C. it's more about reaching [the Academy voters] through the papers they read and the online websites they visit and the TV programs they watch.”

And unlike the awards season circus currently underway in Los Angeles, just because a film has nabbed a nomination doesn’t mean Washington will want to talk about it again.

“We still have to connect it to the news of the day,” Tsao says.