Saturday, January 31, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)

Tom Hanks
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Robert Rodat
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Genre: Action, Drama, War
Running Time: 169 minutes
Summary: Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.

The History

In 1998, it was a tale of two movies battling it out for Best Picture. While it doesn't seem like much to call a Steven Spielberg movie a failed Oscar campaign, it is another to judge it against the mighty and baffling call that garnered Shakespeare in Love the top prize. While one has become a noteworthy war epic, the other has remained one of the most notorious winners. It could just be because of the lack of legacy the film has obtained over the years. There's very little about Shakespeare in Love that people remember nowadays other than it won for being a film about a subject that the Oscars love: acting. 

But there is more to the actual race than a bias. There is the familiar culprit of stories like this: Harvey Weinstein, who at the time was working for Miramax, a subsidiary of Disney and considered to be the premiere indie film company of the 90's. As evident by the past entries, he is a notorious figure who has altered the Oscars in a lot of atrocious ways. In this case, it is almost bittersweet to note that he can now be accused by some of buying the Best Picture and diminishing the quality of the actual award. While this is left to interpretation, there's a lot of poetry in the controversy at foot. 

For starters, it was an unlikely rivalry. With Weinstein representing Shakespeare in Love, his competitor was Saving Private Ryan; represented by Jeffrey Katzenberg. To summarize, Katzenberg left Disney to start the company Dreamworks, which released Spielberg's war epic. The two had worked together in years prior and were reportedly friends who liked each other's work. At least that is what Weinstein will claim if asked this question. Katzenberg definitely feels that there is some dirty pool going on in getting Shakespeare in Love the edge. 

So in this special Failed Oscar Campaigns, it will be a look at two former colleagues going at each other with money for prestige. While Saving Private Ryan remains the favorite with an enviably impressive cast, there's those that question its merit. While both men left this year in somewhat redeemable condition, it is hard to find a more relevant argument for Oscar bait than Shakespeare in Love

The Campaign

It started off how it always goes: money. Where an average independent film would market for their award with an average $250,000; Weinstein had the advantage of being in the inner circle of awards voters. He spent allegedly $5 million in publishing advertisements that gave him the edge. While there was an argument to be made that some of the budgetary complaints on the campaign were actually connected to regular advertisements, it still was a large number and evident for whatever Weinstein thought an independent film was, he was going above and beyond to play in the big leagues. He also claims that this was a misunderstanding and he spent closer to $800,000 on the Oscar campaign. Katzenberg claims it was closer to $3 million.

There were several factors at play at this time. The most notable is the release date. Saving Private Ryan was released in July while Shakespeare in Love received wide release in January; just in time for Oscar voting. While it tied into the marketing fiasco, it also caused something odd for the war film. While it was hailed as a favorite, the belief that it wouldn't last into Oscar season began to be seen as a problem. As a result, Katzenberg had to pay more for advertisements just to be as noticeable as Weinstein. In an interview with the New York Times, Weinstein painted himself as a victim by claiming that he could only react to Katzenberg's aggressive campaign.

Beyond the trade papers, things began to become more murky. Weinstein hired the likes of Warren Cowan, Dick Guttman, Gerry Pam and Murray Weissman to help him out. It wasn't in a productive way either. With the four already being Academy members, they were able to schmooze up to voters and force them to consider Shakespeare in Love as something more. They were retired publicists, which made the situation all the more baffling. Still, it was indicative of the growing age of the voters. There were reports around the time of voters refusing to watch American History X to consider Edward Norton's Best Actor nomination because of violence. If there's any indicator, this is likely true of Saving Private Ryan as well: a film with a notoriously gruesome opening battle scene.

In the most controversial of all moves, Weinstein threw a party for Shakespeare in Love director John Madden. After receiving the Oscar nominations, there was a "Welcome to America" party thrown by Bobby Zarem. Reportedly at the party was Academy members Sidney Lumet, Jay Presson Allen and David Newman. This was considered a violation of the rules because it was considered a party thrown for Academy members for the film. Despite the people who showed up, Weinstein maintains that it wasn't geared directly at voters. He goes on to state that he did it mostly to get the press interested.

As things wound down, Saving Private Ryan became more obscure based on its inability to raise press as much as Weinstein. True, they upped their marketing budget, but the notoriety established for Shakespeare in Love was in place. It was beginning to feel like Weinstein's Rolodex of friends was paying off. Was it possible that he could win against the war epic?

The Payoff

It would be wrong to accuse Saving Private Ryan of failing at the Oscars. It did garner 11 nominations and won five, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg. With the others being predominantly technical fields, it was odd to see a film of its magnitude lose. It was up against Shakespeare in Love, which had 13 nominations and seven wins including Best Picture. It was a shocking split and an odd conclusion to a battle between former colleagues. Still, it felt like Weinstein had struck again and this time with his most notorious campaign to date.

There were rumors going around that following the awards ceremony, Weinstein ran into Spielberg. When he told Spielberg "Congratulations," Weinstein was met with a threatening "You're welcome." While it doesn't seem like a logical story based on Spielberg's previous success with a sweep for Schindler's List and being the most successful director in American history. Still, the notion that Weinstein would annoy someone of higher power is just a delightful thought that embodies everything that is wrong about this particular year's awards ceremony.

Sure, Weinstein claims that he loved Saving Private Ryan and showed it to Hillary Clinton who in return showed it to President Bill Clinton. There's no further confirmation. However, it does feel like Weinstein sucking up for the sake of covering up a scandal that resulted in one of the most controversial wins in the modern era, likely only second to Crash. While this wouldn't be the last time that Weinstein would be present in the Oscar race, few times since have felt as jarring as this one. His campaign didn't necessarily fail, but it did give off the notion that you could indeed buy your way to Best Picture. 


  1. Great article! It's unfortunate that the Oscar race became more about who campaigned the most instead of basing the winners and nominees on merit alone. The more disturbing thing to me is Academy members saying they won't watch certain movies because of violence, race issues, sexuality issues, etc. just like last year when some people came out saying they wouldn't watch 12 Years a Slave but would vote for it anyway. Not sure how you could even ever fix things like that, though.

  2. Nice article. Honestly, the fact that the Oscars went both ways with the split makes this less egregious. Honestly, people may not "remember" SHAKESPEARE, but watching both films, RYAN starts out excellently and slight drops towards the end, whereas SHAKESPEARE was fun and impressive all-throughout. Now, granted, RYAN overall is the better film. The Oscar Picture/Director split makes the year okay.

    I'm baffled by how much less anger is directed at a year such as 2010, where KING'S SPEECH dominated over better films in both categories. At least in 1998, both films got something. In 2010, the wrong film won the two big ones. And people were like, "Okay. Just the Academy being the Academy."