And the winner is...
Need a little help getting Best Picture at this month's Oscars? Jerry Pam has been pitching it where it matters for the past 40 years. By Tim Cornwell
Saturday 14 March 1998
But the main draw is an inch-thick press pack, filled with Oscar trivia, biographies and pictures, the idiot's guide to the movies in contention. "Julie Christie was born on her father's tea plantation in Chukua, India." "Dustin Hoffman received his fifth Oscar nomination for Sydney Pollack's comedy, Tootsie." All so that the TV news presenters can do their live stand-ups and throw in, "and did you know, Frank, this is the second time in the past three years that all five of the directing nominees have been first-time nominees?"
"I loved it," says Jerry Pam. "Absolutely loved it." Pam is on the Oscar's public relations committee; Good Will Hunting, the film whose Oscar run he handled for Miramax, has netted nine nominations. Another, the Brazilian Four Days In September, has made the running for Best Foreign Film.
He is gloating that the Belgian offering, Ma Vie En Rose, was squeezed out. It had won a Golden Globe, but Pam dismisses the film in terms not fit for a family newspaper. "Four Brits for Best Actress, that's pretty good," he says, but adds a caveat: there were four Brits for Best Actor in 1983, including his client Michael Caine, but it was Robert Duvall, the American, who squeaked it.
Jerry Pam ran his first Oscar campaign, for Marty, in 1955, with Ernest Borgnine playing a 34-year-old Bronx butcher. "Four Oscars, four nominations," he says: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor. The trick, then as now, was getting people to see the picture. "We said if any Academy member could get 20 members up to his house, we would send a projectionist and a screen and he could see the movie." These days, each Academy member is deluged with between 50 and 60 videos at Oscar season: it makes life easier for the wife and kids. In the old days, studios offered dinner and a movie: now it is gizmos such as the snowstorm paperweight, complete with bloody corpses, put out by the makers of Fargo last year.
Open any copy of Daily Variety in the Oscars season, and you'll find the ads. The films are offered, in full-page glossies that cost nearly $10,000 a shot, "for your consideration", a term that Jerry Pam helped introduce 40 years ago. Some push single actors: Jack Thompson for Best Supporting Actor in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Thompson didn't make the nominations); Dame Judi Dench for Mrs Brown (she did). They tout new arrivals such as Paul Thomas Anderson, the 27-year-old marvel who wrote and directed Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, backed with glowing tributes from journalists.
Some of these adverts defy gravity, given the mediocrity of the offerings, and they are typically published under contracts that demand Oscar campaigns as part of the small print. Paramount pushes Nicholas Cage for Best Actor in Face/Off. There is a double-page spread for The Rainmaker. The Peacemaker is offered for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, the works, as is Tomorrow Never Dies, in a particular exercise in futility: Oscar always looks down his nose at James Bond.
Why campaign for an Oscar? "Wouldn't you like to have one?" Pam asks. "It's logical. Why not. First of all, you can become world-famous, right away, from that one thing. Your price goes up, if you're careful. See, the only thing you have in the business is your name. That's what it's all about."
A political campaign says "vote for me", says Pam, and so does an Oscar campaign, though with an electorate of only about 5,000. Like US elections, they are waged mostly through paid media, and are ringed around with rules. This year, the Academy banned companies from sending out videos wrapped with selected excerpts from the most glowing reviews: now they come only with a plain, printed letter.
It is not simply a question of best man - or movie - wins. Studios that have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting a film will happily drop half a million or so on the Oscars. Along with the print and television ads come actors' interviews, to "remind people how good their performance was", Pam says. Packaging helps, but the product has to have class. Sometimes, studios will promote a film to curry favour with a star. Equally, they lose interest in a film that is played out commercially. If Titanic had been launched on its original summer date, it might have struggled to collect the 14 nominations it picked up.
Jerry Pam was born in London. He worked for three years on film trade newspapers in Australia before moving to Hollywood for Twentieth Century Fox's international division. Working at MGM, he met Roger Moore, who would become a client. After another stint in entertainment journalism, he set up his own PR company, representing actors, writers, and corporations. He handled US publicity for The Beatles, and staged Academy screenings for their films A Hard Day's Night and Help. His speciality has been Oscar campaigns, for figures such as Ingrid Bergman (Orient Express) and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
Oscar campaigns are part of Hollywood myth; they date back to 1935, less then 10 years after the Oscar tradition started. There are the famous stories of Oscar battles: the publicist who in 1947 persuaded a Las Vegas casino to make his client's film, Mourning Becomes Electra, the 6-5 favourite. Some film companies have allegedly used phone banks to target Academy members.
At the same time, it is hard to isolate where a campaign has helped a film. Titanic hasn't needed much help. Chariots of Fire, Pam says, was carried simply by its unforgettable score. Subtlety is also required: Courtney Love and Madonna, "bad girl" contenders last year with The People vs Larry Flynt and Evita, launched image make-overs that were a little too obvious. With Forman, Pam recalls playing for the sympathy vote by stressing that the director's wife and children were barred from leaving Czechoslovakia to join him. Apparently, it helped.
One of Pam's proudest moments, in running campaigns for more than 20 films, came with Clint Eastwood and Unforgiven, the Western he directed and starred in. Pam worked the campaign with his then partner and Warner Bros. The aim was to reposition Eastwood, subtly, as a Hollywood figure with serious purpose. Pam helped push the publicity-shy Eastwood into a one-hour television documentary on his life and an interview with David Frost. It paid off with four Oscars, including two for Eastwood, Best Picture and Best Director.
He also credits himself with a strategy decision for Michael Caine: shifting his bid from Best Actor to Best Supporting Actor for Hannah and Her Sisters. "I said, Michael, you're not a supporting actor, it's best performance by an actor in a leading role." But, he told him, "There's no way you can win the Oscar as Best Actor because Paul Newman has it wired. Everybody knew Paul Newman was going to win, and he did".
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