Lisa Taback discusses her unlikely path from journalism to Hollywood awards strategist at Netflix
By Emma Guillén and Marc Chalufour
A lot of talent goes into making an Academy Award–winning film. When a best picture winner’s name is dramatically pulled from an envelope and announced, directors, producers, actors, editors and cinematographers all share in the glory. But behind the scenes, another effort has likely helped the film reach that stage: a focused PR campaign to generate awards-season buzz. In this niche field, Lisa Taback (’89) has spent nearly three decades distinguishing herself as one of Hollywood’s most successful strategists. Her successes stretch from 1990s best picture honorees The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love to recent winners Spotlight and Moonlight.
Even by those lofty standards, 2018 was a banner year for Taback. In July, Netflix acquired her company, LTLA Communications, and named her vice president of talent relations and awards. Her team’s work was immediately evident in the campaign for the streaming service’s critically acclaimed Roma. Though not a typical Oscar contender—no foreign-language film has ever won best picture—it received 10 nominations, as many as any other film last year, and eventually won three: best director, best foreign language film and best cinematography. For Taback, that wasn’t the year’s most rewarding success: a film she produced, Period. End of Sentence., which had emerged from a high school project her daughter was involved in, won the Oscar for best documentary (short subject). In April 2019, the film also won best alumni short at COM’s Los Angeles Redstones Film Festival.
Oscar-winning Period. End of Sentence. documents a project started by Taback’s daughter’s high school class. The students raised funds for the film and Taback served as a producer. Rayka Zehtabchi
COMtalk spoke with Taback about her journey from Boston to Hollywood—and what she thinks makes a great film.
COMtalk: Did you ever think you would end up in Hollywood?
Taback: No, I really didn’t know that this is where I would end up. I thought I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ted Koppel, but having done a great internship at WCVB, I got to see what the newsroom was really like and I actually fell in love with entertainment news. I moved back to LA where I had family, and started working as a freelance news writer at KTLA. Then, through some hard work and a little bit of magic, I ended up working on some early Oscar campaigns for films like Pulp Fiction. That was the big turning point. However, there were a lot of jobs along the way. I worked for Disney in PR, I worked for the Shoah Foundation, at Amblin Studios (Universal). There is no one pathway to success; I think you need to be guided by your own inspiration and purpose. My pathway was a crisscross and required much more networking than I would have ever imagined.
Your experiences cover so much of what COM teaches: journalism, film, PR and marketing. How did COM prepare you?
There are three things. The film classes were really significant. I’m glad that I used any extra electives and spent that time immersed in film. I don’t think I went to the student union or a sports game—I don’t even think I socialized much at all—because I spent any extra time immersing myself in film. The second is that when someone needed help on a movie or with their equipment, I would volunteer. And, third, I think the most important thing was that I gained a sense of how to express myself extemporaneously. I took away this ability to pitch, to stand in front of a group of people, to speak on camera. I realized this was something you need to be able to do very well in any kind of communications-related field.
Many people may not realize what goes into an awards-season campaign for a film. What, exactly, does an awards campaign strategist do?
It involves creative marketing, plotting out the strategy of timing when you’re going to release a film, what the cadencing of film festivals might be, what the narrative is, how you are going to position it, and what you’re going to highlight about the film. Then there is all the technical stuff: there are screenings, advertising, budget, talent schedules. Another thing we do is create a narrative. We use things like the op-ed pages, and we have certain tastemakers host screenings. It all has a rhythm to it, and I think it’s up to the strategist to define what that narrative and rhythm is. The strategist tells the story.
At Netflix, we have a different model because we have a short amount of time that we’ll put films in theaters before they go onto our service. So when you’re an award strategist, you have to think about all of that.
What makes an award-worthy film?
I think dramas with some comedy are going to be the most award-winning films. The common characteristic is usually that it will make you laugh and cry at the same time. It’s a really hard thing to pull off, but if you think about the best films, the ones you love the most, the ones that are Oscar winners have that in common. You don’t usually recommend a film to someone unless it has a couple moments of levity, as well as significance.
You owned your own firm for two decades—and last year Netflix acquired your firm. How has that been for you so far?
It’s amazing. I love it here, and I can’t imagine a more exciting place to be right now. Everything is possible here. We’re putting out the best content with some of the most exciting and talented artists. I never thought anything would be more inspiring than having my own company, but Netflix feels like the best of a start-up with the safety net of the greatest company in the world. I can’t imagine a better situation.
One of Taback’s first projects at Netflix was promoting Roma, a black-and-white foreign-language film. It received 10 Academy Award nominations—as many as any other film in 2018—and won three categories. Netflix
Why does investing in awards campaigns make sense for a studio—and what’s the impact of winning a best picture Oscar?
A best picture is a symbol of great art. We do what we do because we love movies and that’s no different whether you’re Netflix, which has been making movies for five years, or you’re one of the studios that’s been around for a hundred years. We love movies and we also know we are a groundbreaking entertainment company. What’s really important about awards campaigns is that they shine a light on films and artists that might not otherwise have that moment. It was very important for Roma to gain the attention it received because those aren’t stories and faces that would otherwise be given that statue or that moment on stage. Nobody was seeking fame—that’s not why we do it. That’s not why I do it. I do it because it’s important to get these small stories told and shared.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.