Winning best picture is a triumph in any year, but DreamWorks’ victory with “American Beauty” represents a coming of age for the upstart studio.
The picture’s five awards — including best picture and best director — are a particularly sweet victory for DreamWorks because of the disappointment the company faced when “Saving Private Ryan” earned best director for Steven Spielberg last year — but lost best pic to Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love.”
For “Beauty,” however, DreamWorks pulled out all the marketing stops to help it earn the landslide victory.
Its closest competitor Miramax’s “The Cider House Rules” came away with just two nods, for best adapted screenplay and best supporitng actor Michael Caine.
In some respects, this year’s battle between Miramax and DreamWorks shaped up as a repeat of last year’s skirmish.
Like “Ryan,” “Beauty” had a summer release. “Cider,” like previous years’ nominees “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare” and “Good Will Hunting,” was released in December, a strategy said to ensure that films are fresher in the minds of Academy voters.
Miramax and DreamWorks also shared the luxury of having to back just one horse each. Studios like Disney have contractual responsibilities to support all nominees, resulting in a scattershot approach that can lack the competitive focus needed to mount a successful Oscar campaign.
The studios also shared marketing techniques. Each bought local access time for “The Making of…” infomercials on Los Angeles cable stations. Each carefully crafted upbeat messages for their ads, even though the films were veined with darker tones.
But the differences between the two films in this year’s showdown were obvious from the get-go.
“Beauty” grabbed every honor that wasn’t nailed down, including the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild (best actor, actress) and Producers Guild awards as well as the Golden Globes (best picture, director, screenplay).
“Cider House” earned many nominations but few wins save a SAG nod for Caine’s supporting performance.
Terry Press and her DreamWorks marketing team also learned a lot from last year’s Oscar debacle. The studio made a full court press in trade advertising for “Beauty” — and the cast, writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes logged many hours in the public eye.
In fact, it could be argued that DreamWorks’ Oscar campaign began back in September, with buzz from the Toronto Film Festival, and barreled forward from there.
One industryite who witnessed “Beauty’s” triumphant Toronto screening said, “I remember people were saying that it was a great film but that it would never be nominated. It was too dark, there were drugs, murder and adultery and the Academy was full of older voters who would never respond to it. But they kept putting out a message that was young, fresh and positive.”
Even the invitations for DreamWorks’ holiday party came in the form of a Christmas card from “Beauty’s” Burnham family, requesting guests’ presence at their “open house.” At Cienega restaurant, Ball, Mendes, Spacey and Annette Bening mingled with guests as soundtrack artist Elliot Smith performed an acoustic set.
DreamWorks’ “Beauty” message also contained a singular improvement over “Ryan.”
“They kept a sense of discovery,” said a competing studio exec. “They never got arrogant. It was a great example of not overhyping, not having it peak too early — just like Miramax.”
For Oscar’s favorite indie, there’s always next year.
In the meantime, Miramax walked away with a terrific consolation prize: Since “Cider House’s” nomination, the gross for the Lasse Hallstrom-directed drama has more than doubled to $48 million.
“They knew it was a nomination, not a win,” said a rival studio marketing exec. “They got what they wanted out of it.”