Capitalizing on the lack of studio-backed prestige dramas – the obvious shoo-ins for Oscar noms – distribs of arthouse pix are spending more than ever to have their critical hits noticed by Academy voters.

Prestige pic distribs are exploiting a chink in the big budget Oscar armor of “Forrest Gump” and “Quiz Show,” wooing Oscar voters with ads, screenings, videocassettes and other devices – usually reserved for big studio fare – for “Death and the Maiden,” “The Madness of King George,” “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” and “Vanya on 42nd Street.”

Miramax Films, clearly the top spender among the specialty houses, not only is touting the obvious – “Pulp Fiction” – but such potential sleepers (in various categories) as “Fresh” and “Little Buddha,” films the company says have critical, if not box office, backing.

“This is not vanity Academy Awards advertising,” says Mark Gill, marketing president for Miramax. “And we all know that is out there: If the action film that didn’t appeal to anyone over age 18 is getting Academy (ad) pages, you know we’re talking about vanity advertising.”

But Miramax can play the game with the best of them. Miramax co-chairs Harvey and Bob Weinstein will spend more than $100,000 on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Red” alone. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently disqualified the film as the official Swiss entry, but the Weinsteins have now undertaken a campaign to get the critically-blessed “Red” nominated in a slew of other slots, including director, original screenplay and perfs.

The cost of the “Red” campaign is mild when compared with some major studio campaigns, which are carrying what sources say are price tags between $1 million and $2 million. But consider that Miramax has 11 films it wants nominated in various categories. The costs mount.

The Disney-owned Miramax is expected to spend, on a per-picture basis, between $20,000 (“Clerks”) and about $400,000 (“Pulp Fiction”). Although the company says it won’t spend more on a per-picture basis than in previous years, the volume of Miramax movies being pushed for 1994 noms will almost certainly set a company high for total campaign spending.

The independent Samuel Goldwyn Co. will spend between $300,000 and $400,000 on its campaign for “The Madness of King George.” Meyer Gottlieb, Goldwyn’s president and CEO, said the campaign was among the “most aggressive” his company has undertaken for Oscar noms. In addition to a significant trade ad campaign, Goldwyn has sent “Madness” cassettes and a “making of brochure to all 4,924 Academy members, increased the number of trade screenings to 23 (from a planned six) and moved the film’s theatrical expansion up by two weeks in Los Angeles and New York – cities packed with Oscar voters. By mid-February, the critically lauded film will expand to 400 screens, at least 100 more than Goldwyn’s initial plans, per Gottlieb.

“We’re competing with both majors and independents affiliated with majors,” Gottlieb says, “and there’s no question that their budgets are greater than ours. But ours is large enough to reach the Academy to the level that we want.”

Smaller distribs face a tougher Oscar campaign scenario. Strand Releasing, a boutique operation based in Santa Monica, recently acquired “Wild Reeds,” the official French entry for a best foreign-language nom. If the film is among the nominees announced on Feb. 14, Strand will take over the bulk of the campaign costs from the film’s producer, Canal Plus. It would be Strand’s first Oscar campaign, and Strand co-prexy Jon Gerrans said the cost would approach $100,000, some of which would come from the film’s regular ad budget.

“Obviously, we can’t compete on the playing field (with majors and bigger indies),” says Strand co-president Mike Thomas. “And historically, that sort of marketing doesn’t really put a film at an advantage anyway.”

Jeff Lipsky, partner in October Films, concurs, doubting that more money spent on October’s 1993 entry for best docu, “The War Room,” would have altered the race’s outcome (the pic lost). October’s campaign budget was approximately $40,000. That sum compares with what the bigger Goldwyn spent to buy out two performances of the London legit show “The Clandestine Marriage,” which stars “Madness’s” Nigel Hawthorne – the company needed the thesp for a U.S. press junket.

Unlike major studio films, release skeds for arthouse product can be timed, expanded and otherwise tortured to accommodate the whims of the pre- Oscar period. On Feb. 10, Fine Line Features will widen “Hoop Dreams” to 250 prints. “We hadn’t planned on going that wide,” says Liz Manne, Fine Line’s senior VP of marketing. “It wasn’t planned until momentum on the film built to a head like it did.”

In fact, the critical support and popularity of the basketball docu are said to have caught Fine Line off guard. New Line’s specialty division had already earmarked the campaign money (about $300,000 to $400,000) for “Death and the Maiden” and “Mrs. Parker,” but “toward the end of last year,” Manne says, “we realized we literally had the best-reviewed film of the year on our hands.”

The company decided to break with Oscar tradition by pushing the documentary for a best picture nod, and a last-minute campaign on what Manne calls a “diet budget” of under $100,000 was devised. Tapes of the film were hurriedly packaged and mailed to Academy members, all the work done in-house. “We’re reinventing the concept of a grassroots campaign,” Manne says.

Whether it or any other campaign pays off remains a matter of conjecture. “To assume that Academy members can be bought is ludicrous,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “The notion that you need to spend more money to buy votes is a joke.”

Still, even Barker concedes that raising the visibility of a worthy picture can play a role in landing a nomination. Two SPC underdogs of recent years, “Europa, Europa” and “Cyrano De Bergerac,” scored one and five noms, respectively, after the distrib launched concentrated campaigns. This year the company sent tapes of “A Man of No Importance” and “Vanya on 42nd Street” to the actors’ branch of the Academy, hoping to score nominations for the films’ Albert Finney (“Man”) and Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith (“Vanya”).

“The thing is, you just never know if something is going to be nominated,” says SPC’s Barker. “The possibility is always there. Sometimes it can work. And sometimes you spend a lot of money for nothing.”

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