A Brief History of Self-Financed Oscar Campaigns: Five Award Aspirants That Paid Their Own Way

In recent weeks, much has been made about “Compliance” star Ann Dowd’s self-financed campaign for an Oscar, which might seem foolish if it wasn’t well-deserved. However, she’s hardly alone in believing in her work enough to dip into her own pockets to raise its awards profile. This year alone, Linda Cardellini wanted to remind her peers of “Return,” a drama in which she portrayed an Army vet struggling with reintegrating into domestic life, and footed the bill for sending out screeners to the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy, and as noted by the New York Times, documentarian Steven Barber put off buying a new car so he could help support a bid for the song and score from the film “Until They Are Home.”

With only slightly better odds than the lottery, these filmmakers may seem like their pulling the ultimate vanity move, but as history has proved, what may look daft in the short term has occasionally proven shrewd in the long run if the goal is to seek recognition not for one film but the ability to make more. Here are the underdogs who have gone without the help of studios or strategists to make their case for a little gold man.

Sally Kirkland – “Anna”

Although few remember now the 1987 drama about an actress thought to be past her prime (Sally Kirkland) hoping to kickstart her own career while seeing her Czech protégé (Paulina Porizkova) find success after arriving in America, the film notably set a precedent when Kirkland took similar initiative as her character in bringing awards attention to her performance. As the actress recalled in an article timed to 25-year anniversary of her surprising Oscar nomination, Kirkland called in favors from Andy Warhol and Joan Rivers to appear on their TV shows, pulled quotes out of Rex Reed and Norman Mailer to use in ads and then started working the fall circuit that’s now become de rigueur for most serious contenders, attending such events as the L.A. Film Critics Circle Awards and finding the cash to screen the film and pay for ads. A win at the Golden Globes for Best Actress preceded an Oscar nomination, though it did little to bolster Kirkland’s profile as a leading lady in the years to follow.

Patrika Darbo – “Daddy’s Dyin’…Who’s Got the Will”

A rare directorial outing for frequent Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson production designer Jack Fisk, this raucous 1990 comedy about a fractured family battling over the estate of their father even as he’s still on life support was a mild success with audiences susceptible to its Southern charms. But it’s unlikely anyone thought of it as an awards contender, most importantly its distributor MGM. Enter Darbo, who saw an opportunity to capitalize on her turn as the neglected wife of the family’s lone son (Beau Bridges) as a platform for more jobs by buying a one-page black-and-white For Your Consideration ad in Variety. It wouldn’t lead to nomination, but it might’ve contributed to what’s been a steady career as a character actress since. And if it’s any comfort, back when such things were tallied, the Sean Connery-Michelle Pfeiffer drama “The Russia House” took out 19 ads in the Hollywood trade and also won bupkus.

Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso – “Caught”

Director Robert M. Young was no stranger to prestige projects, having helmed 1980s films such as the Ray Liotta-Tom Hulce drama “Dominick & Eugene” and the Farrah Fawcett thriller “Extremities,” both of which got Golden Globes attention, if not from the Academy. So it wasn’t completely unreasonable to think that there might be some consideration for the 1996 noirish character study of a Jersey City couple (Maria Conchita Alonso and Edward James Olmos) whose relationship is shaken up by the entrance of a drifter (Arie Verveen) who takes up the room of their son who has left to pursue a career in Los Angeles.

Young had put some of his own DGA pension into the film just to get it made, so Alonso and Olmos, whose history with Young dated back to the 1977 Hispanic film breakthrough “Alambrista!,” decided to fork over the cash for pay for video screeners and a few For Your Consideration ads, with Olmos noting in an interview with Variety how hard it was for films featuring Latinos to get their due attention. While an Oscar nod was out of reach, the efforts weren’t for naught. The film claimed three Spirit Award nominations and special recognition from the National Board of Review.

Kevin Smith – “Red State”

Largely considered a publicity ploy than an actual attempt to win over the Academy, Kevin Smith’s booking of Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema for a weeklong Oscar consideration run of his 2011 thriller about the siege on a church of religious fundamentalists served, like most things for the resourceful writer/director, a number of purposes. Indeed, one was to satisfy the awards requirement that a film must show twice a day for a week in Los Angeles, but after boldly proclaiming at its Sundance premiere that he’d self-distribute the film, a true theatrical run of the film never materialized before or after debuting on VOD other than a one-night-only tour of a handful of cities in the spring, so it gave Smith the comfort of a traditional release in his adopted hometown and probably a nice profit to boot since he charged a premium, using post-screening Q & As for added value.

As a result, it appeared from our firsthand experience there were less Academy members in the house than the usual coterie of Smith’s fanbase. Still, Smith seemed sincere in his efforts to celebrate his cast and his efforts weren’t totally in vain. Though he didn’t impress awards voters, he did well in targeting one former Oscar winner, his friend Ben Affleck, who wound up filling out many of the supporting roles in “Argo” with actors he saw in “Red State” such as John Goodman and Kerry Bishe.

“The First Grader”

Technically, the ill-fated campaign for Justin Chadwick’s 2010 drama which featured the Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo in the true story of a villager who is finally able to pursue an education at the age of 84 when he sees a school built nearby wasn’t self-financed, but it wasn’t paid for by anyone directly involved with the film either. While the film’s producers tried to crowdsource a campaign on IndieGoGo, they unexpectedly had far more success when they attracted the attention of Allie and Olivia Shea, a pair of sisters no older than 11 and eight, respectively, who urged their father, a Burbank-based entrepreneur who already made the move from Arkansas to support their acting careers to shell out the dough for 15,000 DVDs to send to the guilds, a few billboards and naturally ads in the trades. Alas, Oscar voters weren’t as inspired as the young girls were, but “The First Grader” went on to pick up a Gotham Award nomination for its Audience Award and some attention from the Black Reel Awards, not to mention the Sheas’ respective IMDb pages are looking pretty healthy.

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