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For Your Consideration: ‘Life of Pi,’ the Oscars, and How to Persuade the Media

Oscar stat.svg  For Your Consideration: Life of Pi, the Oscars, and How to Persuade the MediaCan you remember waaaay back to what seems like ancient history in the entertainment news cycle—the morning of January 10th?

I can, but not because of any mental acuity; rather, I recall it because my in-box got slammed with all kinds of announcements, pronouncements, predictions, and near-seizures in relation to the Oscar nominations, which had been made public only a couple of hours earlier.

Of course in February’s immediate run-up to the awards show, CTP will feature several posts about the Oscars. However, if educators wait until then they may miss out on many of the juicier teaching opportunities that the season provides. In a sense, with the nominations themselves, we’ve already seen the passing of an important part of the process—the “For Your Consideration” stage in which film marketers and publicists try to position their products with an eye not just to the Academy, but to critics and other awards-giving bodies. (Want some great teaching resources on this topic? Just check out the Media Literacy Clearinghouse’s dedicated FYC page.)

So before too much more time passed, I wanted to share the below document, an emailed press release that I received on that fateful morning. Now, this is going to seem like I’m picking on Life of Pi again, but I can only reiterate that I have a great deal of affection for the film (in fact, I just wrote a Study Guide for it this past week). I’ve shared press releases before, and this one confirms my contention that they are both invaluable and underused teaching tools when it comes to media literacy. Okay, enough tee-up; here’s the email reprinted in its entirety except for the sender’s name (all one needs to know is that it came from a publicist).

***

[subject line:] Ang Lee – Academy Award Nomination Reaction Statement on behalf of LIFE OF PI

Below please find Ang Lee’s reaction to the 11 Academy Award nominations LIFE OF PI received this morning.

“I am deeply honored and frankly a little overwhelmed by all of the nominations that ‘Life of Pi’ has received this morning. So many talented people gave everything they had to this film, both in front of and behind the camera, and to see all of them receive this kind of recognition is something I am incredibly grateful for.”

Some fun facts about LIFE OF PI:

  • Film is approaching $400 million worldwide gross
  • Film is approaching $100 million domestic gross and Ang Lee’s highest-grossing film to date
  • LIFE OF PI is Ang’s most Oscar nominated film of his career
  • Ang Lee is the only director in the race this year to receive nominations from the Academy Awards, BAFTA, Golden Globes, DGA and the Broadcast Film Critics.
  • While many have assumed that the film can’t win because it has no well-known actors, including an experienced lead actor, the film has made a sweep of key factions including DGA, PGA, WGA, BAFTA, ASC, VES, AFI, ADG, HFPA
  • Previous films including BRAVEHEART, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING

- LIFE OF PI fits with the precedent of films that win Best Picture with no acting noms for the following reasons:

  • Large technical achievement (BRAVEHEART and LOTR: ROTK)
  • No big star in the cast (SLUMDOG)
  • Predominantly cast featuring people of color (SLUMDOG)
  • Considered a great directorial achievement (All of them)
  • Non-American stories (All of them)
  • Ang is being recognized for his achievement with this film by VES (Visionary Award), MPSE (Filmmaker of the Year), and the International 3D Society (Harold Lloyd Award). He was also recognized this year as VARIETY’s “International Filmmaker of the Year” at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and he received a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres insignia.
  • Film is not a story specific to one country or region – it’s a world wide story
  • Film based on best-selling book that is now back near the top of the NEW YORK TIMES Best-Seller list
  • Film is Ang’s first foray into the world of 3D
  • Famous quote from W.C. Fields about never working with animals or children, but LIFE OF PI has both animals, a young lead actor, and water – and the film successfully uses all three
  • Film crew was comprised of over 3,000 members from all over the world, including members for 21 countries worldwide.

***

So, apart from illustrating funky punctuation (yes, a bulleted list within a bulleted list was part of the email) and weird shading (that’s my fault), what’s the instructional value of such a text?

Well, if you present this to students (be my guest), be sure to emphasize that, again, this is the copy verbatim, with nothing left out. In the absence of an intro, then, or a conclusion, you might begin with the big WHY. That is, what’s the purpose of such an e-blast? Certainly it contains a bunch of factoids that might be interesting in their own right to Pi fans, Oscar-ologists, trivia hounds, and industry watchers… but what else is going on here?

This question is probably best answered if one recalls that in some quarters I’m actually considered <cough> a journalist. After all, that’s who typically gets press releases, right? Members of the press?

In this light, the absence of an explicit introduction or rationale for the email becomes more intriguing. Whether reflective of a conscious strategy or not, its persuasive intent is left implicit, and therefore the text does not come across as a crass plea for a certain type of news coverage. Here, then, are the teachable aspects to which I’d draw attention:

1. The subject line is about director Ang Lee’s reaction to the Oscar nominations, but how much of the actual email concerns that reaction? Follow-up: how is that subject line designed to catch the eye of a journalist given that it appeared so immediately after the nominations were announced?

2. Why might the “fun facts” begin with figures about the film’s gross? In what ways does that help position coverage of the film’s nominations as “newsworthy”?

3. Aside from engaging the recipient’s own interest, what might be another reason for the inclusion of so many fun facts? (Hint: press releases often present such data and encourage writers to make use of them; and busy writers are only too happy to do so, especially when trying to be timely with their Oscar coverage.)

4. Most importantly, why is the case so strenuously made for Life of Pi‘s potential win for Best Picture? My (somewhat obvious) guess is that it’s easy for the film to become overshadowed by apparent Oscar frontrunners such as Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, perhaps just earning a quick nod in any published stories. And maybe it’s that nod that the publicist seeks to frame, shifting the narrative from Life of Pi being a long shot with a bunch of “technical” nominations to a strong contender when one considers the history of films that are similar in one way or another.

Of course there are other observations and interpretations that can be made about such “behind-the-scenes” primary source texts, ones that you and students can arrive at yourselves. I just need to remember to share these kinds of documents more often, and encourage others (who are far more “on the inside” than I am) to do likewise. In fact, that’s the brand of media literacy that I’ve ended up practicing almost by accident—the kind that moves from the inside-out… and thus encourages students to move from the outside-in, digging under the headlines they read to consider why someone, somewhere, chose to write that particular headline in the first place.

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Comments

  1. So, journalists, film critics and others receive emails like this one, all of the time. And the purpose of the email is to: persuade said journalist/film critic to include one (or more) of said contained factiods in a followup story. But how many of them do? Does anyone go to the trouble to actually conduct a content analysis of ALL of the “news” stories written about a specific film to determine how many “facts” came from the PR, as opposed to any original digging on the part of the journalist? Just label me curious.