Deja vu

DreamWorks, Miramax face off

For the second year in a row, the Academy Award nominations have positioned DreamWorks and Miramax to square off as primary contenders for best picture — and with that, raised the possibility of another ad-spending showdown.

Last year, DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” was posited as the sure thing for best picture, with “Shakespeare in Love” as a worthy also-ran. By the end of the two studios’ multimillion-dollar Oscar campaigns, however, a victorious Harvey Weinstein could be seen gripping his best picture statuette, while a dour DreamWorks team flanked Steven Spielberg and his Oscar for best director.

Now it’s deja vu all over again. DreamWorks has the early odds-on favorite with Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” while Miramax is squarely positioned in the feel-good category with Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules.”

This is the ninth straight year that Miramax has joined the circle of best picture Oscar nominees, but it’s been six years since Miramax had its wrist slapped for sending Academy voters poetry books in support of “Il Postino.” Since then, Miramax has hewed to Academy rules on giving gifts but has not steered clear of criticism for lavish Oscar-ad spending.

In 1999, DreamWorks’ marketing troops for “Ryan” were drawn into the battle, with DreamWorks’ co-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg admitting that his studio stepped up their ad budget to keep pace with Miramax.

“It’s no different than a political race,” said one longtime Oscar race observer. “You have to keep current.”

“American Beauty” received Golden Globes for drama, director and screenplay in addition to winning a host of honors from critics associations, while “Cider House’s” honors include a screenplay award from the National Board of Review for John Irving, Golden Globe noms for Michael Caine and Irving, and nominations from various guilds.

The most compelling case for “Cider House,” however, may be the fact that it historically fits in the mold of classic Miramax Oscar bait. Like 1996’s “The English Patient,” 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” and 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” “Cider House” is an end-of-year release that rolled out slowly and has now expanded to take advantage of its Oscar buzz.

In 1998, DreamWorks released “Saving Private Ryan” on July 24, and by the time the final polls closed for Oscar ballots in late March of 1999, it appeared as if “Ryan” had been riding high for so long that it was ripe for an 11th-hour defeat. While “American Beauty” wasn’t released quite so early last year, its Sept. 15 released allowed it to avoid the Christmas rush, but also leaves it vulnerable to being the movie everybody else has been gunning for for months.

Granted, the other three nominees have their own pockets of support. Disney’s “The Insider” has also been a critical favorite — albeit one backed by former studio president Joe Roth rather than chairman Michael Eisner; another Disney title, “The Sixth Sense,” is a box office smash that received some strong reviews. By contrast, Warner Bros.’ “The Green Mile” seems like a relative dark horse: neither the film’s star, Tom Hanks, nor its director, Frank Darabont, received a nomination.

However, compared to last year’s front-runners, “Cider” and “Beauty” are very different in what they offer the Academy.

Neither “Ryan” nor “Shakespeare” was exactly family entertainment. But with “Ryan’s” gritty patriotism and “Shakespeare’s” romantically sly take on the Bard, each offered a unique charm that could cast a spell over voters.

Miramax’s ad strategy for “Cider House” appears to place the film squarely in the “Shakespeare” vein with its bucolic scenes of Tobey Maguire giving Charlize Theron a piggy-back ride. However, in “Cider” the love story shares equal screen time with key plot points on abortion, incest and ether addiction. Miramax, not surprisingly, betrays no hint of those issues in the marketing campaign.

Of course, “American Beauty” hardly runs the risk of adding a laurel from the Academy of Family Films and Family Television to its long roster of awards. But while the drama offers little retreat from the dynamics of family dysfunction, DreamWorks’ ad campaign doesn’t dodge that bullet. Instead, the marketing embraces the film’s dark side, using moody photos of its stars and including excerpts of Alan Ball’s award-winning script such as, “Want me to kill him for you?” “Yeah, would you?”

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