Why is Harvey Weinstein the ultimate Oscar campaigner?
There are 8 million great stories about Harvey Weinstein and his single-minded pursuit of Oscar glory. This is just one: Earlier this year, not long after “The King’s Speech” had earned a host of Oscar nominations, Weinstein threw a fabulous party at the Chateau Marmont hosted by Ridley Scott, Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger, among others.
At some point in the proceedings, Weinstein, who always has a platoon of Oscar-savvy consultants on the payroll, cornered one of his minions, demanding to know what was going on in the room. “Who’s here? Who’s happy? Who’s not?” When Weinstein finally paused for breath, the publicist gently reminded him that she didn’t work for him anymore, so he’d have to find someone else to badger about the thousands of details he worries about every day during Oscar season.
In a nutshell, that is why Weinstein is the world’s greatest Oscar campaigner. At most studios, an Academy Award statuette is the topping on a sumptuous ice cream sundae. For Weinstein, the Oscars are the meat and potatoes of his business. A year without an Oscar best picture contender is like waking up to a lump of coal under the Christmas tree.
This year the Weinstein tree is loaded with potential Oscar goodies. His Weinstein Co. has “The Artist,” already a best picture favorite, and a pair of leading actress contenders in Michelle Williams for “My Week With Marilyn” and Meryl Streep for “The Iron Lady.”
During his 15 or so years running Miramax, Weinstein amassed an astounding 249 Oscar nominations and 60 wins, including three best picture victories — for “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago.” Even more amazing than the wins were the nominations Weinstein earned for trifles that in anyone else’s hands would never have passed the Oscar smell taste, as in 2001, when Weinstein scored a best picture nomination for “Chocolat.”
So why is Weinstein so good at the Oscar game? To start with, he’s a ferocious competitor, having pushed the rules so many times that whenever a rival movie is buffeted by a smear campaign, all fingers point in Weinstein’s direction. In 1999, Steven Spielberg was furious with Weinstein, believing “Shakespeare in Love’s” best picture win was buoyed by a negative campaign against “Saving Private Ryan.” In 2009, “Slumdog Millionaire” was suddenly hit with a wave of stories suggesting that its filmmakers had exploited its Indian child actors.
Asked by a journalist if he could possibly have had anything to do with the negative press surrounding “Slumdog,” Weinstein jovially responded: “What can I say? When you’re Billy the Kid and people around you die of natural causes, everyone thinks you shot them.”
But Weinstein's real strength as a campaigner comes from the simple fact that he arguably has more passion for movies than any other player in the game. Weinstein knows a good film when he sees one. Even better, he’s willing to take a risk on a shot in the dark, as with “The Artist,” a silent movie filmed in black and white that presented far too much of a marketing challenge for most mere mortals.
Weinstein collects a portfolio of potential Oscar films, obsessively monitoring the early reaction from pundits, critics and academy members, knowing that most of the movies will eventually fall by the wayside. If the Milwaukee Journal critic is lukewarm about one of his potential Oscar favorites, Weinstein, a voracious reader, is the first to know it. As one marketing rival put it: “Harvey is totally unsentimental — he buys the most ponies, feeds them the best hay and then sends the ones who won’t make it to the finish line to the glue factory.”
Weinstein is also a master showman. This year, in a brilliant Barnum-like move, Weinstein held an academy screening for “The Artist” co-hosted by two of Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters, managing in one fell swoop to link the film to the highest royalty of the silent screen.
Call him a schemer, but you can bet Weinstein has seen more Chaplin movies than all of Hollywood’s corporate movie barons put together. His stunts work because they are grounded in a love of movies. Perhaps that’s why Weinstein understands Oscar voters better than anyone else. When people fill out their Oscar ballots, they consider all the movies they admire, but they vote for the one they love — one that often has Harvey Weinstein in its corner.
Photo: Harvey Weinstein, film producer and co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., shown in New York last month. Credit: John Carucci/Associated Press