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The Secret Behind Winning an Oscar in 2016

THE REVENANT, Leonardo DiCaprio, 2015. ph: Kimberley French/TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox FilmTHE REVENANT, Leonardo DiCaprio, 2015. ph: Kimberley French/TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film
THE REVENANT, Leonardo DiCaprio, 2015Photograph by Kimberley French — TM and Copyright 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Everett Collection

Oscar watchers won’t know the big winners until Sunday when the 88th Academy Awards are broadcast to a projected national audience of somewhere between 30- and 40 million viewers. But the awards race quietly reached the finish line with the official end of Oscar voting on Feb. 23 — a deadline that caps the frenzied, 33-day span of last-minute campaigning known among Hollywood insiders as “Phase 2.”

Kicking off Jan. 22 with the Academy Awards nominations announcement, Phase 2 involves no small amount of legwork for the actors and filmmakers being honored in marquee categories, according to several awards season veterans contacted by Fortune.com.

“It’s a very hectic time,” says Cynthia Swartz, whose firm Strategy PR/Consulting is running Oscar campaigns for The Revenant, Steve Jobs, 45 Years and Room. “It’s going to the various events. You’ve got the [Screen Actors Guild] awards, then you go to the UK for the BAFTAs. Then you come back. There’s a lot of traveling. And a lot of the time, films have to do international promotion so they’re trying to shoehorn that in.”

Swartz has worked behind the scenes on campaigns for such Oscar-anointed films as Crash, Pulp Fiction, Chicago and The Hurt Locker. She adds, “Everyone wants to utilize the nominations as a marketing tool to drive business. It’s a very compressed several weeks.”

Cynthia Swartz, Oscars Consultant
Cynthia Swartz, widely considered one of the best Oscar consultants, at an industry event last year. Photograhy by George Napolitano FilmMagic
Photography by George Napolitano FilmMagic

The campaign trail

Just to reach this Oscars’ knock-out round, the nominees have already strolled a procession of red carpets at gala events, smiled for cameras at press meet-and-greets and raised toasts and posed for selfies with Academy voters — in addition to attending numerous industry panels and lower tier awards ceremonies.

And during Phase 1, major movie studios can spend as much as $10 million on ad campaigns, watermarked screeners; and feting balloters with lavish buffets, concerts and champagne receptions.

The rules of Phase 2

A demanding set of rules laid down by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences governs how nominees can promote their films and performances during Phase 2, regulating what are known as “value-added opportunities.”

Chief among them: “no screening event may include a reception or otherwise offer complimentary food or beverages.” No more than four screenings followed by question-and-answer sessions featuring the talent from the films (thereby limiting the overall effect of star power on balloting). And unlike the nomination phase, where a “let’s run everything up the flagpole and see who salutes” marketing mentality reigns, Phase 2 maintains a limit of one promotional email per week and just a single screener DVD to each member.

Over the months that unofficially comprise awards season — roughly from Labor Day through Christmas when the year’s most prestigious movies reach the theatrical marketplace — Oscar nominations in specific categories are voted upon by members of various branches. Directors vote for directors. Sound editors vote for sound editors. Costume designers, for costume designers, and so on (hence the Oscars’ renown as perhaps the world’s most glamorous employee recognition party). During Phase 2, however, the silos between the branches vanish and every Academy member can vote in every category.

Guild awards before the Oscars are key

Which is why, according to awards strategists, nominees’ attendance as both presenters and nominees at various guild awards — the big three being the Producers Guild Awards (Jan. 23), The Directors Guild Awards (Feb. 6) and the Screen Actors Guild Awards (Jan. 30) — becomes crucial. Above and beyond furthering perceptions of themselves as winners, such appearances function as campaign stops not unlike an election primary: they give those nominated a chance to press the flesh with a wide swath of potential voters while remaining squarely in the public eye.

But more than the sum of its photo opportunities, Phase 2 is associated with momentum shifts that can result in stunning come-from-behind victories. In 2011, after trailing The Social Network across a raft of critics awards in the lead-up to Oscar nomination day, the historical biopic The King’s Speech began a dark-horse run that ultimately yielded Academy Awards for best picture, best actor, best director and best screenplay. Likewise, after Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Academy in the best director category in 2013, Argo found a burst of new energy during Phase 2 that resulted in Oscars for best picture and best adapted screenplay to become the year’s Cinderella story.

And this year, after trailing Spotlight throughout awards season, The Big Short has surged to the front of the pack as the odds-on favorite to take home the Academy Award for the Best Picture, in part due to the fact that it won the Producers Guild Award.

Is there too much attention on winning?

Swartz, widely considered one of the best awards campaigners in the business, has cultivated this reputation by working on competing films from rival studios on any given year. Still, she is among those who think the evolution of Phase 2 from an industry concern into a matter of public scrutiny has coincided with media coverage of the awards race. Nowadays, gurus of gold handicap nominee odds on a daily — and sometimes hourly — basis.

“It went from being something the press primarily covered the films to being this thing of, ‘Who’s up? Who’s down?’ Really aggressively covering it like a sport,” Swartz said. “That’s unfortunate. It’s taken away from the honor of just being nominated. They really are honored to be nominated. If it isn’t an honor to be nominated, then why is everybody so upset by #OscarsSoWhite? People care about the nominations!”

Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.