The Campaign - John Mann

The Campaign

by Robert W. Welkos

OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A PR woman wages her toughest nominations fight versus He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. 3,748 words. Illustration by John Mann.


It is a most curious job I have, thought Veronica Jasper as she sipped her extra large parsley-kale-spinach and lemony yogurt smoothie. How could anyone, certainly not her high school chums back in Nebraska, have possibly predicted that she would one day wind up as Hollywood’s premiere Oscar consultant? Even she had to marvel at how destiny had taken hold and shook out the best in her like a soapy mop. The fact is she now had become a tenacious publicist with scads of A-lister contacts in the ultra-rarefied realm of professionals who conduct Academy Awards campaigns.

Veronica’s specialty was creating Oscar buzz around her clients, much like political consultants do for candidates running for public office. True, neither she nor any other Academy Awards consultants had their own golden statuettes for a job well done, but they could be members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ venerated “Public Relations” branch. Still, Veronica had morphed into the kind of person she most loathed about the entertainment industry: a player who takes delight in the misfortune of others.

But enough of such idle musings, Veronica told herself. There’s another Oscar campaign season upon her! Phone calls to make. Dinners to arrange. Producers to placate. Journalists to schmooze. Still, why did she feel so gloomy? Because here she is — again — for the twentieth straight year coordinating the Academy campaigns for another clutch of indie and studio clients. And it’s always the same rat race. Get a grip! One day she’ll retire to that seaside hideaway in La Jolla and forget all of this nonsense. But for now she needs to plot how to win the coveted votes of all these self-involved, self-aggrandizing Academy ilk.

First, of course, there’s the Golden Globes to contemplate and conquer. To Veronica, it seemed like only yesterday that the corrupt Hollywood Foreign Press Association had named Pia Zadora best actress for Butterfly after the pseudo-actress’ then husband had bought the members’ votes. Sure, the HFPA keeps claiming it no longer accepts lavish gifts, exotic vacations and swanky dinners from studios and indies. Veronica knows that’s not true – and needed to come up with new and filthier lucre for them.

Veronica shifted in her white leather chair, carefully setting the smoothie down within arm’s reach on the white maple conference table and studied her tablet. She then ticked off her list of must-dos for this season’s campaigns as her twenty-something junior publicists — Amy, Russ and Jeremy – texted on their smartphones.

This year they were repping a crime drama called The Marx Sisters. Shot noir-style in glorious black-and-white entirely on location in Montreal with financial backing from a mysterious Putin loyalist, the film told the story of three French-Canadian Jewish sisters. One had become the mistress of another’s wealthy husband and now was the target of a murder plot by her two older siblings.

The film had received a standing ovation at the Festival de Cannes. No one had expected such an outpouring of affection for first-time director Dominick Lecroix’s cinéma vérité, filmed in a series of evolving scenes from room to room, block to block, and all from the viewpoint of each sisters’ eyes. It was so chaotic and so dizzying at times that audiences complained of headaches and nausea. But the plot was so cleverly diabolical that few cared. Cannes was in love with Lecroix! So what if his film ended messily with all three sisters left stabbed and bleeding on a bridge by a female fiend who began stalking them mid-way through the film.

Le Figaro’s headline sufficed: Marx Soeurs Est Magnifique!

Veronica soon discovered that the three actresses who play the Marx sisters — Claudia Eiffel, Josephine Massine and Lucie Nottingham — all loathed each other. They even refused to pose for the media with linked arms on the Cannes red carpet.

“Okay, I forget this HFPA member’s name,” Veronica said to her junior publicists as she dragged a rough napkin across her kale-green lips, “but he drives an airport shuttle full-time and writes a weekly column for some Bavarian rag called…”

“…Der Burgerkingmeister,” Amy said.

“Yes, but we must treat it like Bild,” Veronica smiled. “His name is Franc — with a ‘c’ — and he’s new to the HFPA. He could be a pivotal vote since he’s one of only eighty-some members. So let’s just say we flatter the shit out of Franc? Who’s going to sleep with him first? Anyone know if he’s gay or straight?”

Amy groaned. “I’ve heard that he’s a total Elke Sommer freak and if that means I have listen to stories about how Elke deserves a special Oscar, I’ll puke.”

“Right!” Veronica said, pointing a fake fingernail at Amy. “I want every DVD of every film that Elke ever made rushed over to Franc pronto, compliments of our producer Sergei. And see if we can’t get a few 8-by-10s of Elke with phony autographs so Franc can display them on his shuttle’s dashboard.”

“Which begs the question,” Russ interrupted his boss, “that even if we sway all the cab drivers at the HFPA, we’ve still got the Oscars ahead of us. Hell, it would be easier if Lecroix had simply made this picture a comedy. That way, the Academy wouldn’t give a rat’s ass since we all know the AMPAS members hate laughers.”

“That’s evident from the emcees they hire every year,” Jeremy quipped.

“Might I remind all of you that it’s in each of the actresses’ contracts that Oscar campaigns be mounted for each of them?” Veronica reprimanded. “I need ideas. One thing we have to do is get them all together for a Vanity Fair shoot. No ifs, ands or buts.”

“Impossible,” Amy said.

“Can’t be done,” Jeremy lamented.

“Consider the odds less than zero,” Russ concluded.

“Great,” Veronica said. “Let’s make that a top priority.”

The PR boss looked down her list of must-do’s. “Today show, Ellen, CBS Sunday Morning, SNL, Sunday New York Times, W, and all the late night clowns — even Conan, I guess. You know, all of the usual suspects. And remember, Sergei’s mantra is Do Anything It Takes to Win this year. Now, any other suggestions?”

Amy raised an eyebrow. “How does he do it every year?”

Veronica’s expression soured. The Lord Voldemort of the Oscars. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

“What do you mean?” she asked Amy.

“How does he win so often?”

Veronica scrunched up her nose and pushed air with her left palm as if she had just rejected a plate of steaming turds.

“He can be beaten. Trust me.”

“I’m not so sure,” Amy pressed. “He has that pic in which the actress plays fifteen different intersex characters, and that violent movie where the leading man is said to actually change facial expressions for the first time in his career; and then another Shakespeare remake only with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Shylock as Sherlock. I shudder to think what Lord Voldemort can pull off with that trifecta. And this isn’t even one of his best years.”

“I agree,” Jeremy said. “If you think back on his past Oscar campaigns…”

“He can be beaten,” Veronica repeated even more crankily. “I mean, a child with glasses defeated Lord Voldemort. Trust me, I’ve done it myself on occasion. It will be fun to do it again. Just remember – it wasn’t He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named but Harvey Weinstein who got Daniel Day-Lewis to testify about the Disability Act before a Congressional committee while campaigning for My Left Foot. That was a stroke of genius.”

“I heard he first tried to get Gwyneth Paltrow to testify about the global need for breast implants,” Jeremy joked. “So what do we do?”

“We out-scheme him,” Veronica replied, her eyelids narrowing into coin slits.

“But how? The Academy has clamped down again. It’s tough enough with no more ornate packaging of screeners, no quote ads, no telephone lobbying, a limit on emails, no parties and receptions honoring nominees by anyone directly connected to the film, no music branch members attending special live performances. But now I hear they’re thinking of having us all sign loyalty oaths—“

“Loyalty to what?” Veronica smirked.

“Loyalty to AMPAS diversity, which is nonexistent.”

“Absurd.” Veronica said, then slurped the last vestiges of her smoothie and burped. “Let’s just stay with the facts, okay? Now here’s what we do. We’ll blanket the trades and major newspapers and mags — that is, if there still are any print media left — and all the entertainment websites with ‘For Your Consideration’ ads. And we do as many festivals as we can. And Q&As with everybody. They all get face-time with our stars before a roomful of voters.”

“But our three actresses aren’t speaking to each other, remember? And they’re demanding separate awards campaigns.”

“Just be inventive, guys,” Veronica said. “So what are the Oscar bloggers saying about our chances?”

Ron looked glum. “Lucie is six-to-one but would be three-to-five if Iñárritu was the director. Josephine is twenty-to-one if Sorkin was the screenwriter. And Claudia is forty-to-one because Ivan Reitman is producing her next picture.”

“But this is a dirt track and Claudia always does better on turf,” Jeremy quipped.

“Dispense with the lame jokes, Jeremy,” Veronica said.

“Some bloggers are doing back-flips over the fact there is a trio of strong women in The Marx Sisters so they can stick it to Hollywood for not hiring enough femme talent. But not if they hear the females in the film are baring their claws at each other.”

“And the other bloggers?”

“They left ten minutes after the film started and returned with ten minutes left.”

“And they still reviewed it?”

“Of course. They called it a masterpiece and a tour-de-force.”

“At least no one called it a tour-de-farce,” Jeremy said flippantly. “But you forgot about the blogger who asked us for naked stills from the film of all three women. He also says he’s seen the picture five times and still can’t decide what to write.”

“But that’s impossible,” noted veronica. “We’ve only screened it for press at Cannes and one other place.”

“Well, he claims to have seen it five times. He said he’s waiting for a sixth screening to bestow his one-line wisdom on the world.”

“Anything else?” Veronica asked.

Amy made a face. ”Look, we all know that The Marx Sisters is based on a true story of three Jewish sisters living in Quebec who were all murdered by their aunt. But now there’s a whisper campaign raising questions about whether the family was really Muslim.”

“And you think Lord Voldemort’s people may be rumor-mongering to undercut our chances?”

Amy nodded. “Or, it could be another studio pretending to be He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to get him in trouble with Sergei.”

Veronica rubbed her eyes in anguish. Sergei is the multibillionaire Russian oligarch who produced The Marx Sisters and hired her PR firm. She both reported to him and was terrified of him. She suddenly felt exhausted.

“We may not know who’s behind this whisper campaign but I assure you that whoever they are will get their comeuppance.” A look of defiance appeared on her face. “I’ll grind the motherfuckers into sawdust. Nobody craps on Veronica Jasper and gets away with it.”

The thought of revenge made her smile.

Two weeks later, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, actress Claudia Eiffel sat patiently as the makeup artist applied a rosy glow to her high cheekbones. “I go on first, got it?” Claudia insisted as the junior publicist Amy sat a few feet away staring at her smartphone.

Amy tried to explain. “You all enter as one joyous troupe linking arms and—“

“—Fine, as long as I enter first then I don’t give a shit what happens. And each of my co-stars has to be at least a car’s length behind me. Is that clear?”

“But the photographers want all of you in a tight shot.”

“Ask me if I give a dick…”

“Okay,” Amy sighed, again staring at her smartphone. “So you’ll all come out … separately … and then stand and pose while the photogs get their shots. And then you all go to your respective interview tables where the foreign press members will be seated. Each of them gets five minutes, max.”

Amy hurried off to find Josephine Massine who was pushing twenty-six and slim as a yardstick. The actress sat hunched and clutching her stomach. “I’m suffering the dry heaves,” she told Amy.

“Are you able to do the interview?”

Josephine slumped to one side and rotated her eyeball toward the publicist like a lizard might to a moth. “Smell my breath. Does it stink of vomit? I must know now or I can’t do the foreign press.”

“I’ll get you a mint—“

“—I can’t trust a mint. Only a human nostril, and you have two.”

Amy reluctantly sniffed. “I can’t smell vomit,” she told the actress. Josephine immediately stood and studied herself in the mirror and provided affirmations. “You are a better actress than Meryl, more popular than Jennifer, more radiant than Angelina.” Then she glanced back at Amy and said, “Let’s get on with it, shall we?”

Next, Amy searched for Lucie Nottingham, the twenty-one year old London model who was doing arm-sculpting repetitions with 5-pound dumbbells in each hand. According to the Daily Mail, Lucie inhabited a body with more “natural talent” than her co-stars. This only served to exacerbate the venom between the trio.

“I want to tell you that I have had a terrible morning, just terrible, and it’s all because of them,” Lucie said as she continued her workout.

“The media?” Amy asked.

“My screen sisters Claudia and Josephine, that’s who.” Lucie stopped to rest and her head suddenly drooped forward like an abandoned marionette. “On second thought, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

Amy whispered. “Franc Becker is with Der Burgerkingmeister. He’s new to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. He drives an airport shuttle. And he loves Elke Sommer.”

“Elke who?”

“Never mind. Just tell Franc how demanding your role was and how you fed off Dominick’s brilliant directing and that he encouraged you to improvise, which permitted your performance to soar to new heights.”

Lucie whispered back, “My migraine is piercing my skull and I have this facial twitch starting and —“

“—Franc Becker said he’s dying to meet you. Shall we?”

At that point, Veronica appeared and debrief Amy then rounded up all three actresses. She told them they would make their grand entrance in five minutes, each separated by the length of a tiny Smart Car.

As they waited, Jeremy rushed up to Veronica. “I just got off the phone with Dr. Egglestone. He’s studied sisters for a quarter-century and devotes an entire chapter of his recent best-seller to how sisters can be their own worst enemies. He’s willing to testify before Congress about the need for federal legislation protecting sisters from each other.”

“Federal legislation to do what?”

“Does it really matter?” Jeremy asked. “Just the sight of our three stars testifying before a Congressional subcommittee will insert The Marx Sisters into the 24-hour news cycle.”

Veronica looked at Jeremy who thought he’d just pulled off the coup of the Oscar season. And maybe he has, she thought. Humor the guy. He has potential to make it big in this biz someday — but hopefully after she’s in La Jolla and done with this shit.

“I see your point, Jeremy,” said Veronica. “That just might have potential. Work on it.”

Just then, Veronica’s ringtone erupted in spontaneous clapping. “Hello? … Are you sure? … CRAP!” The PR boss turned off her cell and said to Amy sotto voce, “Interpol just issued an arrest warrant for Sergei. They claim he’s a front for the Russian Mafia.”

“Jeez, is it true?”

Sabotaged,” Veronica growled. “And just as we’re gaining traction. Damn it, Lord Voldemort is good.”

Veronica thought for a moment, her teeth grinding. “It will be all over the media any minute. So now we leak to the HFPA that Lord Voldemort’s movie is based on a big hoax. The actress is really an actor playing an actress. We can get some doctor to verify it. With photos.”

“But will the media report that?”

“We supply them with talking points.”

“Oh, right!”

“Just remember: if Lord Voldemort puts Sergei in jail before the Oscar nominations come out, we’re fucked.”

A few minutes later, Veronica stood before the three actresses and lectured them like she was talking to schoolkids. “The core message of our movie is that families matter.”

“Crapola,” Josephine sniffed. “The core message of this movie is that two insane sisters are killers and the third is a slut.”

“That will not win us nominations,” Veronica patiently explained. “So just put it out there: families matter. Forget what the movie is about, the message is key to an awards campaign. And this year, with the world falling apart because of ISIS, I believe everyone wants to feel safe and look inward.”

The actresses stood at a safe distance from one another as they were individually introduced to wild cheers from the foreign press. Camera flashes lit the stage as photogs shouted, “Claudia, this way!” "Josephine! Over here!” “Look here, Lucie!”

The Italian magazine writer was so starstruck sitting before Josephine that the woman forgot to ask questions. Josephine told the reporter, “Serefina. What a lovely name. I wish I had a sister named Serefina. That’s all that’s important – families matter.”

Serefina quietly clapped, then checked her digital recorder to make sure she had captured the statement that would frame her story. But Josphine wasn’t finished. “So it’s such a shock to learn that Claudia actually voted Republican once upon a time.”

In the next hotel room, Claudia was finding it difficult understanding the Romanian critic. “You know, Razdan, I have some Romanian blood in me. A distant relative on my father’s side who was part of a traveling acting troupe. So I guess acting just runs in my blood because families matter.” She could see that Razdan was intrigued. “By the way, isn’t it just awful what the British tabloids are saying about Lucie’s drug addiction?”

In a third hotel room, Lucie accepted a handkerchief from Franc Becker. “Thank you. I don’t know what’s causing my nose to bleed. It must be the dry weather we’re having. But then, as an actress who has studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I believe that you have to adapt to whatever your environment might be at any time. Moving on, what I really appreciate about this film is that at its core it speaks to the issue that families matter… Oh, did you hear that our feature is being shown at the Weed International Film Festival?“

Four days later, at the 15-seat Community Theatre in Weed, California, Lucie was receiving an award. “I want to thank the Weed International Film Festival and everyone responsible for giving me this legendary career plaque,” Lucie gushed. “I only wish that my older sisters from the movie could be here today but they’ve taken ill. I look upon all of you as family because families matter —“

Off-stage, Veronica answered her cellphone. “Hello, Jeremy? What did you find out?”

“I’ve learned that Interpol has been tracking an international jewel thief for months and discovered that he shares a mail drop in Malta with Sergei. That’s our film producer’s only involvement. This jewel thief is going to surrender to Maltese officials tomorrow.”

“It was Lord Voldemort, wasn’t it? He probably set this up when he was at Cannes in May. I read about his visiting Malta. He did this. He put them up to it. He’s in bed with Interpol. He gives them all Rolexes every year to save his Oscar chances.”

“Huh?” Jeremy started to question Veronica’s sanity.

“Don’t you see, Jeremy? He knows I’m fucking with his movies opening Down Under and now he’s come back at me with some trumped-up charges against our Russian moneyman. Well, I’ll show him.” Veronica walked over to the bar and asked a handsome barkeep in a bowtie mixing drinks if he could make an Adios Motherfucker.

The crowd of more media than movie people was buzzing as Jo Glass, one of Hollywood’s newer Oscar bloggers, rushed up to Veronica. “You’ve got to see this. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my two years of writing about the Awards Season.”

Fear traveled up Veronica’s spine as she looked at the video on Jo’s iPhone. There was Lucie Nottingham standing with two non-pros and they all had mics in their hands. They were bastardizing lines from The Marx Sisters. One woman on Lucie’s left, was saying, “Look, sister dearest, I was there for your epidural, but where were you when I entered a nolo plea to DUI?” The woman on Lucie’s right said, “Driving while intoxicated with my husband, you mean!”

“They’re making fun of the picture,” Veronica said, her mouth agape. “They can’t do this. It’s a drama.”

Everyone in the theater was clapping and cheering. Lucie stepped forward and handed her Weed International Film Festival plaque to one of the amateurs. “Well done! Are you sure you haven’t acted before? You were better than my sisters in the film.”

Veronica seethed — This has to be Lord Voldemort. Hiring two rubes. Casting Lucie in his next picture. Ruining me.

And then Veronica had another thought. What if the non-pros had been hired by Claudia and Josephine to crush Lucie’s Oscar chances? Or what if Lucie were trying to undermine them? It didn’t matter because the video was all over YouTube for the universe to now laugh at.

Banish the thought, Veronica said to herself. It’s He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. It has all his trademarks. The cunning. The element of surprise. He’ll pay. Just wait…

Epilogue

NEW YORK CITY (AP) – Sources say a Hollywood publicist was arrested last night by FBI agents on suspicion of conspiracy and communicating threats over the Internet and building a homemade bomb disguised as a parsley-kale-spinach and lemony yogurt smoothie in connection with an Oscar campaign aimed at derailing a rival’s film. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment. Veronica Jasper, 49, of Brentwood Ca., was led away in handcuffs from Rao’s Restaurant, where she was dining with a recently indicted and released Russian financier co-conspirator named Sergei. An investigation has begun into their ISIS connections, according to an unnamed producer with three Oscar-buzzed films this year.

 

Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.

About The Author:
Robert W. Welkos
Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

About Robert W. Welkos

Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

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