It’s been an astounding season for Netflix. In September the streaming giant won more Emmys than any network or cable outfit—and now, with the Academy Awards just weeks away, it has a Best Picture front runner, Roma, and a total of 15 nominations. There are many reasons for Netflix’s leap to become a major threat to the studios, but the one that makes insiders nervous to talk about is Lisa Taback. The powerful publicist, known as “the Oscar Whisperer” because of her uncanny success at winning nominations for clients in recent years, she’s also notorious for her past association with Harvey Weinstein, once famous for dirty tricks and whisper campaigns.
Publicists like Taback, known as awards consultants, shepherd films through six intense and costly months of furious Oscar campaigning, during which screenings, parties, mailings, and advertising cost at least $5 million and as much as $30 million.
Given its $170 billion stock valuation, Netflix is clearly unfazed by this. In an extraordinarily hardball move last July, the company acquired as many as 35 billboards on the Sunset Strip, in prime locations in Hollywood and West Hollywood, and near Oscar venue the Dolby Theater at a price Reuters estimated at $150 million (shutting out competitors from spaces that can command $200,000 a month each).
It also dug into its very deep pockets to hire Taback, one of the industry’s most sought-after consultants. Campaigns Taback has led in just the last few years include Best Picture winners Spotlight and Moonlight, as well as Oscar nominees La La Land, Mudbound, Lady Bird, and Room.
“Netflix has a win-at-all-costs mentality. The studios have to work in the same community as the people they deal with, but I don’t think Netflix looks at it that way.”
Successful award strategists can make hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single campaign—with sizable bonuses if their movie wins awards. If the strategist owns her own company, remuneration can rise into the millions of dollars. But instead of just connecting with Taback as an independent vendor, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos asked her to come in-house and work exclusively for them. It can’t have been cheap to get Taback to shutter LTLA, her own 15-year-old company and join Netflix as VP of talent and awards. The streamer also agreed hire four close collaborators to rejoin her team. And Netflix didn’t just gain a strategist, it struck a blow at competitors like Taback’s longtime clients Open Road (Spotlight) and A24 (Room).
“Netflix has a win-at-all-costs mentality,” says a rival publicist, who asked not to be named. “The studios have to work in the same community as the people they deal with, but I don’t think Netflix looks at it that way.”
Most studios see winning Best Picture simply as a way to kick up theater ticket sales by 15 percent and boost ancillary value. But Netflix, which now makes more original content than any other studio or network, takes a much broader view. With Disney, Comcast, and Warner Media all launching competing streaming services soon, Netflix has determined it needs even more exclusive original content. The company has committed to spending $12 billion on content this year, going up to $22 billion by 2022.
To pay for that, Netflix has borrowed over $8 billion. In September 2018, Netflix did a public offering for $2 billion more in debt specifically to pay for its big production plans.
So, Netflix plays the game differently. Roma is a marvel of marketing. The black-and-white, Spanish-language period drama, made on a shoestring budget, doesn’t feature a single recognizable movie star. Netflix released it on its subscription service only 23 days after it premiered in theaters in limited release last November. That means most people will have watched director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical art film on the small screen, associating it with the Netflix experience more than with a night out at the theater. (The first two weeks it spent in theaters were its “qualifying run” to meet the movie Academy’s rule for Oscar consideration.)
Meanwhile Netflix has targeted voters and the general public with an Oscar campaign on steroids. Taback produced a robust slate of question-and-answer sessions, screenings, and lavish parties (often in top restaurants), as well as a showcase of costumes at Raleigh Studios. She also sent out a 200-page coffee table book, and sent Roma pillows to journalists in December.
Taback’s efforts have wowed the industry, and made her a target. Before starting her own company she plied her trade for two decades with Harvey Weinstein, both at Miramax and the Weinstein Company. There the now-disgraced mogul was known to use questionable tactics to sway Oscar voters, while he was riding high with movies like My Left Foot, The English Patient, Chicago, and Shakespeare in Love.
In Peter Biskind’s 2005 book Down and Dirty Pictures, Weinstein described how he broke the studio stranglehold on the Oscars. “Rather than just sitting it out and getting beat because somebody has more money, more power, more influence,” Weinstein said. “We ran a guerrilla campaign.”
Others characterize it in even darker terms. “Harvey was unrelenting,” a publicist who worked with him recalls. “A real mean-spirited son of a bitch who was happy to do that kind of thing.”
The most effective trick is the “whisper campaign,” involving rumors and trash talking. Like “oppo research” in politics, one of the most effective tactics is the resurfacing of old news items that cast a negative light on filmmakers or their projects. This can create controversy that can hurt a movies prospects with Oscar voters, a notoriously conservative-leaning group. Some of the most famous near-victims include Slumdog Millionaire, A Beautiful Mind, and even last year’s best picture, The Shape Of Water.
This year the most visible target of a whisper campaign is Green Book, the multi-racial buddy comedy that has scooped up honors at festivals and on the awards circuit, including one of the Golden Globes Best Motion Picture awards.
Since it became an Oscar front-runner, an offensive old tweet from the screenwriter has surfaced, the family of concert pianist Don Shirley has complained about his portrayal, and a 1998 Newsweek article surfaced that describes the movie’s director, Peter Farrelly, flashing his genitals on set as a “joke.” There are also larger complaints that Green Book projects an outdated race-relations narrative. Green Book has been considered by critics to be “antiquated in its portrayal of race, treating Lip, the father of screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, as the type of ‘white savior’ celebrated in films like Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Help (2011),” explained Ethan Sacks of NBC News on January 22.
The far reach of this mudslinging has some Hollywood execs pointing fingers at the top awards strategists in search of a culprit. That includes Taback, who finds any suggestion she is behind an anti-Green Book whisper campaign insulting and is adamant no negative stories were resurfaced by Netflix, which as a public company is very cautious about how it conducts business. Taback declined to respond on the record, but a Netflix spokesperson said, “We do not engage in these kind of tactics. We’re incredibly proud of our films and that’s what we focus on.”
Several past associates stick up for Taback, saying dirty tricks aren’t her style. And they see her abandonment of Weinstein as proof. “She left Weinstein long, long before the rats started deserting that ship,” says an industry veteran. “I know she did it because she just couldn’t stand working for him anymore.”
“This is a reflection of the rise of and the influence of the internet and social media. I don’t condone it, but on the other hand, if somebody has done something that’s, you know, not honorable, people will find this out.”
Netflix and Taback aren’t the only sources suspected of planting the negative Green Book stories. Others include Annapurna, the studio behind the film Vice; Disney, which has the most nominations with 17, including a Best Picture nom for Black Panther; and Fox Searchlight, which tied Netflix in total nominations and, like Roma, has a 10 nominations for its Best Picture contender, The Favourite.
One frequently named potential source is Focus, Universal’s specialty film division, which has Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in contention with six nominations. Part of the accusations come from Lee’s bad blood with the Academy. In 1989, his movie Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated as best picture despite massive critical acclaim, and it also lost in the two categories in which it was nominated. His 2019 nominations end a frustrating three-decade drought for Lee, who got an honorary Oscar in 2016.
The shadow of suspicion has also been cast over Focus’ publicity, headed by one of many top awards strategists who also worked for Harvey Weinstein in his heyday. She declined to go on the record except to say that Lee has not made any public comments about Green Book and that neither Focus nor Lee have anything to do with the recent negative Green Book press. Focus is owned by Universal, which has Green Book, she emphasized, so it would make no sense to harm a sister company’s nominee.
Some suggest that the things coming out about Green Book are simply an organic result of a changed media landscape. “This is a reflection of the rise of and the influence of the internet and social media,” says awards consultant Bruce Feldman, a former studio and indie movie marketer. “I don’t condone it, but on the other hand, if somebody has done something that’s, you know, not honorable, people will find this out.”
“Anybody that has skin in the game, because of social media, has been unleashed,” he continues. “It has always been that we have to win the Oscar. We’ve got to win. There’s nothing new here—but the fervor.”
Taback has her own horse in the race this year, which is almost unprecedented among Hollywood publicists. Alongside her daughter Claire Sliney she produced Period: End of Sentence, a doc about woman in India fighting the stigma around menstruation and access to feminine hygiene products that’s up for Best Documentary Short.
Whether fair or not, the powerful publicist’s success has stoked fear and envy. One competing awards consultant said that when colleagues complain of their movie getting whispered to death, they say it got “Tabacked.”
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to remove a reference to the amount of money Roma earned at the box office. Netflix does not release that information. A paragraph concerning Focus Features’ publicity department has been updated. Previously, this post also erroneously indicated that Netflix sent pillows to voters rather than journalists. A statement from Netflix has been added.
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