Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently sat down for a meeting with an unusual activist: Philomena Lee.
Lee’s story has been adapted for film in “Philomena,” which depicts her journey with a reporter to find her long-lost son, who was taken from her by nuns in Ireland and adopted by American parents.
The path to the Oscars runs through the nation's capital, for “Philomena” and other films, which hire Washington communications teams to work on their behalf, in a process that bears remarkable similarity to a traditional lobbying blitz.
On Jan. 30, the role of lobbyist was played by Lee, who traveled Capitol Hill for a slew of meetings with lawmakers, including McCaskill. The two women staged a news conference, where McCaskill pressed for Irish adoption records to be opened.
"The Irish government has not been as aggressive on this front as we would like," McCaskill said. "They have not done what they need to do in terms of making this an easy process."
Important though the issue might be, the meeting and news conference likely would not have taken place had they not been orchestrated by Precision Strategies, the firm helmed by CNN host and former Obama campaign adviser Stephanie Cutter.
“Precision reached out given that Philomena’s lost son grew up in St. Louis, Sen. McCaskill’s hometown, and we were happy to arrange the meeting,” McCaskill spokesperson John LaBombard wrote in an email.
Precision Strategies’ client is the Weinstein Company, which owns the rights to “Philomena.”
This year, thanks in large part to Cutter’s close ties to Harvey Weinstein, a prominent Democratic donor, Precision Strategies has taken the lead on creating buzz among influential New York and Washington media for his company's slate of films with awards potential, including, “Philomena,” “Mandela,” and “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.”
Likewise, Glover Park Group, another prominent Washington-based Democratic communications firm, has counted “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips,” two other Best Picture nominees, among its clients this awards season.
To try to shore up support for nominated films, and get them nominated in the first place, Precision Strategies and Glover Park Group often try create buzz about their clients’ movies by stirring up — or creating — controversy, which is then echoed in D.C. and New York media likely to influence the Academy voters. Films with a political hook are the best candidates for a D.C. communications operation.
For “Philomena,” there were any number of perfect Washington angles. Lee’s son had grown up to work for the Republican National Committee in Washington. Closed adoption records between the U.S. and Ireland provided a cause to lobby. And the film’s portrayal of Catholic nuns was ideal to create chatter than the film was either too tough on the Catholic Church or not critical enough.
Those storylines provided fodder for a host of news outlets and cable news networks, who interviewed Lee in the weeks leading up to the deadline for Oscar nominations and afterward, when the film was announced as a Best Picture nominee.
On Jan. 6, “Philomena” actor Steve Coogan appeared on CNN for a five-minute interview with Jake Tapper to discuss some of these controversies. With three days left in the nominating process for the Academy Awards, the timing was perfect.
“I saw it yesterday, very powerful,” Tapper said of the film. “But, of course, you have some critics.” Tapper laid out the “controversy” from both sides, and asked Coogan to respond.
“Well, if you’re getting it in the neck from both sides,” Coogan laughed, “then you must be doing something right.”