A chat with Steve Rohr, PR expert for the Academy Awards from 2014-2019 — a span that included EnvelopeGate, Ellen’s Selfie and No Host
If anyone should look shell-shocked it’s Steve Rohr.
During his tenure on the frontlines of the Oscar PR department he had to deal with sinking ratings, an #OscarsSoWhite virtual scandal, Trump supporters who hated host Jimmy Kimmel (2017-2018), an unapologetic Kevin Hart who stepped down as host (2019) — and that time in 2016 when Emma Stone was announced as winner of Best Picture by two Hollywood legends.
But Rohr looks cool, sharp and rested as he sips iced tea in the shade and pets a stranger’s dog in an outside table of a West Hollywood cafe on a sunny Thursday afternoon.
For most of his time at the Academy, I worked on the same floor as he did, but on the Social Media side. But because he would only be in the office four months out of the year, this was our first lunch together. What better a time to look back at his time at the Oscars.
What was your official title at the Oscars?
My title was Show Publicist. That means I am the publicist for the telecast. We are broadcast on the ABC network here in the United States and then on different networks throughout the world where we are seen live in 225 countries and territories.
Before I was the Show Publicist I was a Publicist so I worked with the Show Publicist. And before that I was on the Talent Relations Committee, so all-told 12 years with the Oscars.
You were born in Montana and grew up in Northern Idaho. Relatively small places compared to L.A., a city in which you have thrived.
L.A. is a place where you come to if you have an idea about yourself or your future. I wanted something completely different than most of my peers. I didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. I didn’t want to live for the weekend. And I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. But I knew L.A. was the place to be. It’s the most upwardly-mobile city in the world.
Here you can become an “overnight success” — even though there’s no such thing. You can go from being a kid in a town of 7,000 in Montana to being a Show Publicist at the Oscars. That involves a lot. A lot of luck, a lot of blessings. But I think one reason I have had success here is because of where I grew up — the work ethic was very strong.
How did you get your break with the Academy?
Twelve years ago I had a nominee, Hal Holbrook and he was nominated as a supporting actor for “Into The Wild.” Great, great human being. He will be turning 95 in February.
Best known as playing Mark Twain!
Yes. For over 60 years he toured as Mark Twain all over the world. He was nominated and I also represented his wife, Dixie Carter, famous for “Designing Women.” She has since passed. Wonderful, southern lady. So they were asked to come to the Oscars and I called up Director of Talent Relations, Dina Michelle’s office.
Typically if your client is nominated for an award, you walk with them down the red carpet. Not so with the Oscars. It’s really the only show in the world where the Academy decides who is going to walk your client. At the time Mr. Holbrook was in his 80s and Dixie was very ill.
So, I said, “Dina, if it would be possible, may I speak with the person who will be escorting my clients. I just want to make sure they have the most incredible evening.” Then a few days later she called and said, “well, you’re the guy.” So I was on the Talent Relations Committee that year and it was a tremendous honor. I never thought I would ever be walking on that red carpet.
So what was that first trip down the carpet like for you?
It’s a heady experience. So many eyeballs are on this carpet. It’s big and it’s small, this 900-footlong carpet. It’s the longest in the world and it’s full of 1,500 media outlets. Then throw in the fact that there are people on either side of you, jostling you. And that person jostling you could be Brad Pitt. It’s pretty incredible.
The electricity is phenomenal to the point where you can’t stop smiling and you can’t move your face.
So fast-forward to the last few years where you are representing the Academy for real. Aren’t you glad you had that experience of walking Hal and Dixie down the carpet because now you’re reflecting that as you’re promoting the show?
That’s a great point because it’s very personal. I always watched the Academy Awards. I call myself a true believer because this is an iconic brand. It’s my love for movies, but it’s also the honoring of these filmmakers, the people below-the-line… I’m so enthralled with the brand that I really want to protect it as well as promote it. And that’s what I focused on the last four years.
So were you there when they decided not to have a host?
I was there.
By the way did you see Kevin Hart’s Netflix miniseries “Don’t F**k This Up”? Wasn’t that great? It was great because it was honest.
It was honest. It really pulled back the curtain on one side of the conversation. It showed that he’s a real human being in the public spotlight and how hard it is to make decisions sometimes when you have a lot going on.
And just like you he came to L.A. to be an overnight success. But there’s no school for this.
There is no school. And the lesson to be learned from this is listen to your publicist. As a celebrity it’s really hard to see yourself.
Didn’t the numbers go up with no host? And to your point, doesn’t that mean the Academy knows what it’s doing?
The numbers did go up. But there’s a lot of variables to the numbers. A shorter show improves the numbers, always.
Because the East Coast goes to bed that late? And there’s a lot of people on that coast?
Yes. Even the year that the envelope situation happened the ratings weren’t great because that happened at the very end of the show and that didn’t help anybody. Now if that had happened at the top of the show, the ratings would have gone up, I think.
So did you have to deal with EnvelopeGate? Were you part of the team that had to stay like a week after the show?
I was. More than a week, yeah.
Cuz normally everyone wraps up things on Monday, you get the ratings, you deal with the press a little about that, and your team gets to work from home those next few days.
As you know, we all move over to Hollywood & Highland on Oscar Week. But the PR team just stayed there that year and answered the hundreds of emails and phone calls.
So is that fun-drama for a publicist or is that a nightmare?
You feel badly for the people involved. Especially Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway, they were really put in an awkward spot. You feel badly for the winners of “Moonlight” for maybe not getting their spotlight. The idea is to make that easier for them. You can never really fix it totally.
What I loved about that moment — and I loved so much about it — it was great TV. But what I also loved was it all wrapped up live on TV. I wish all of my weirdest problems got solved in a few minutes.
That is to the credit of the “La La Land” and “Moonlight” producers and directors who were caught in this debacle. They understood what was happening, and that takes a lot of awareness and self-awareness. “You’re not winning. This no longer belongs to you. It did for a minute — literally a minute. But it no longer belongs to you.”
That was really the most honorable thing I’ve seen in Hollywood.
Were you there for Ellen’s selfie?
I was there.
Again, to your earlier point, that happened in the middle of the show, so people who weren’t watching and saw it break Twitter, tuned in and gave it a little boost, right?
Yes. Ellen was a great host. I love Ellen.
What’s the hardest part of promoting a television show at this time in technology, where there is cord-cutting, people are watching things on DVRs and on YouTube the next day?
I think it’s hard to measure that kind of tune-in. It’s hard to measure who’s really watching even the clips.
The hardest thing though is, because of the Oscars’ reach, it can be a lightning rod for anyone with a social commentary. There’s always people who say “please don’t politicize the Oscars” but then there’s a whole lot of other people who want to politicize the Oscars. But, for me, it’s really about the nominees. I don’t think the Academy ever wants to politicize the Oscars, that’s not what it’s about, it’s about the nominees and the integrity of that process and honoring those people.
But if Patricia Arquette wins and she wants to say something, you have to give her her 45 seconds.
Yes. Yes. Nobody tells you what to say. This is your moment. So some people take advantage of that. It’s up to them.
Was OscarsSoWhite the hardest thing that your department has had to work with? And was it hard because you don’t vote. So it’s something you couldn’t even fix, right?
It’s so complicated because what people want to hear or what they will click on isn’t exactly what’s the truth. The truth of what’s going on [for nominations] is actors vote for actors, directors vote for directors. Most actors don’t greenlight pictures. Most actors do not cast pictures. Most actors do not direct pictures. So they’re working with what they have.
Are people overlooked? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. But, again, actors vote for actors, directors vote for directors.
So you’re saying, if you want to blame someone, blame the ones who nominate the people. Don’t blame the entire Academy?
Are you allowed to say that as a publicist when ‘the failing’ New York Times comes calling?
That’s a very tough story to tell because people have already made up their minds and it’s easy to blanket the Academy. I blanket things all the time, so I know this to be true. But if you then get into the weeds on it and start explaining how it really works, that’s not a sexy story anymore.
It’s also insincere when you have a bunch of years where it’s full of diverse nominees and winners. And then you have this year, and it goes right back to that with some categories as if there was some weird plot.
The hard part of this story, as a publicist, is to discount that there is a lack of diversity in Hollywood. Because there is. I am an Asian male. There are very few Asian male publicists, for example. We just don’t exist. I am a unicorn. There are a few but we are unicorns. Even though Asians are the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. and Canada. Hollywood needs to pick it up.
I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but I wear it on my face. I can never pass as a white dude. And I have a sensibility about it. So there was a point of humble pride for being in that space for that period of time. That is not lost on me.
Because you were representing your people.
Yes. And I can speak up in the room. I am in the room. And I did speak up.
Should we just get used to the fact that the Oscars are going to have lower ratings because of how people use television now. It’s no longer just three or 30 channels vying for our attention?
I don’t think so. I hope not. I hope we measure ratings differently. Because I think the Oscars will always mean something. I hope it always will.
Why do the Oscars matter? Someone asked recently on Twitter and I said it’s nice to know where the mountaintop is. It’s nice to have a Gold Standard.
This is culture. This is a bell-weather of what’s important to us now. A reflection of what’s happening politically or socially. It’s also, maybe, a vision for the future. Movies are an escape for people but also a way to gain information and to learn about other cultures or other situations for people. And movies are also a universal language in many ways.
So the Oscars can be a spotlight for some movies. If a movie is a sleeper and suddenly it’s getting some nominations, some buzz, then it can shine an enormous spotlight on that film. It can help smaller films or unheralded actors.
This year “Parasite” is probably the biggest beneficiary of that.
I’m thrilled with “Parasite.”
What’s something that was a pleasant surprise for you working for and with the Academy all those years?
For one, there is this assumption that people at the Academy or who work there are going to be distant or snooty. It’s the opposite. They’re the kindest, most generous, friendly, accommodating, respectful people you will find.
And maybe some of that is — the entertainment business in L.A. is harsh. But what I noticed at the Academy is everyone kissed our ass. So maybe that relaxes you a little. Cuz if you’re working at Fox or Warners, not everyone is gonna kiss your ass.
I think there’s also the idea that we’re lucky to be there and get to be part of this extraordinary thing — at least for me. I’m always humbled by it. This is the first time in 12 years I won’t be at the Oscars. But I look back and I say, “that’s not too bad, Steve, you did OK. You did something right. I don’t know if you deserved it, but you were there.”