On Jan. 12, Jennifer Lawrence showed up at a private screening room in Beverly Hills for Jonathan Glazer’s searing Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. When the movie ended, she sat on a makeshift stage and asked questions of Glazer, production designer Chris Oddy and sound designer Johnnie Burn during the post-screening Q&A.
The event was officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, meaning that distributor A24 could blast out the invite with the Academy’s blessing to its thousands of members. In addition to appealing to voters, her appearance sparked an outpouring of social media posts and buzzy headlines, including an item in People about her straight-leg jeans.
For decades, Hollywood studios and their armies of awards consultants have been perfecting and fine-tuning the art of campaigning to match a changing culture. The now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein, who changed campaigning forever when Shakespeare in Love bested Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for best picture in a jaw-dropping upset, turned screenings into a staple. The more, the better.
But, decades later, it can prove difficult to fill a room. Voters may have seen the movie at an earlier time or would prefer to watch it at home. Enlisting an A-lister is a way to boost attendance.
“It’s stunt casting,” says one consultant, who adds that awards strategists have to dampen studio expectations when it comes to possible famous hosts and moderators who often take on the unpaid role as a personal favor to a director or star. “It’s the bane of my existence,” this person adds. “But once in a while, somebody will come through because they are friendly with someone [connected to the film].”
It long has been common to enlist a famous name to host a screening, but in the past several years there’s been an uptick in the number of major stars moderating post-screening Q&As, according to several awards consultants surveyed by THR. (Moderating used to be the domain of journalists.) This season’s roster alone included Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Kerry Washington and Jennifer Lopez.
The trend can be traced to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Stars could agree to moderate a panel with a low level of commitment,” says another veteran strategist. “They didn’t have to get styled and could just do the Q&A on Zoom.” Yet, even as the pandemic passed, this practice continued. The genie was out of the bottle.
A big-name moderator can be a huge advantage for a lesser-known film. “If you’re doing an in-person Q&A, it gets people out even when the names in the movie might not be huge,” says the strategist. One example is Jennifer Aniston’s Jan. 4 chat with Past Lives director Celine Song and star Greta Lee (the latter appears with Aniston on The Morning Show). The screening was at capacity, and weeks later the A24 film was nominated for best picture (and Song for original screenplay).
The power of peer influence in Hollywood came under scrutiny last year, when To Leslie’sAndrea Riseborough scored a surprise nom for best actress despite the fact that her film never waged an official campaign. A grass-roots effort that included private screenings hosted by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow did the trick, along with social media posts urging members to vote for Riseborough.
None of this sat well with the Academy, which implemented new rules in the wake of the brouhaha. The Academy now allows four hosted events during the pre-nomination period and none post-noms. (Studios can tap an unlimited number of moderators, however, as long as they aren’t billed as “hosts.”) After the noms announcement, no member of the Academy can moderate a Q&A. There are, of course, work-arounds. A third-party screening of a film that’s nominated for an Oscar can enlist an Academy member as moderator, as the American Cinematheque is doing Feb. 7, when Laura Dern will converse with Nyad nominees Annette Bening and Jodie Foster.
“There’s no reason to go to a screening at this point in time,” says another awards veteran. “So you have to give them added value and the potential for a lively, interesting engagement.”