Contenders use tricks, timing in battle with bigger rivals

When in doubt, bring in the big guns.

Writer-director Eva Gardos knew she didn’t have a prayer of getting award voters to focus on her movie “An American Rhapsody” unless she did something dramatic. This despite best picture honors this year at the Hollywood and Nantucket film festivals, good reviews and a positive buzz.

Gardos and all other indie filmmakers know that small-budget movies — “Rhapsody” cost $3.2 million — tend to get buried in award season by the kinds of pictures that can afford a re-release (“Moulin Rouge,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) or a pricey “for your consideration” campaign (remember the famous battle in 1998-99 between Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” and DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan”?).

If successful, the spoils of such campaigns are often spectacular. A high-profile award, particularly an Oscar, can dramatically boost a film’s box office, and can launch a star’s career into the stratosphere. But in the bombardment of campaigning, many films have a hard time getting noticed. That means the filmmakers and the companies behind them do whatever they can, within the strict restrictions imposed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, of course.

So, a few weeks ago, Gardos — a veteran editor (“Agnes Browne,” “Barfly,” “Mask”) — and her producers, Colleen Camp, Peter Hoffman and Bonnie Timmermann, called a few friends, people like John Travolta, Martin Sheen, John Woo and Christian Slater. Would they come to a press party for the film at Le Dome restaurant in West Hollywood and say nice things about the movie? They would, they replied, and did, along with cast members Nastassja Kinski and Scarlett Johansson.

Drawn to the names, “Access Hollywood” and “Extra” showed up, as did a few print scribes. Munching hors d’oeuvres and sipping champagne (nothing too expensive), the guests dutifully did stand-ups and talked up the picture. A minor publicity bonanza was born.

“This is one of those smaller films with wonderful actors, but it still needs the kind of specific support that John Woo or I can provide,” Travolta tells Variety. “It’s another way of getting attention. In the Oscar race, timing is everything.”

Travolta says Camp had sent him a tape of “Rhapsody” at home. “I fell in love with it and asked her what I could do. I said I’d do anything. I would like to see those performances get some nominations and the film get some attention.”

Johansson, who flew to the party from New York, traveling coach, demurs on the subject of outright campaigning, saying she will leave the heavy lifting to the publicists.

“It’s not my responsibility to think about nomination time,” says the 17-year-old actress, who in the film plays a conflicted Hungarian expatriate struggling to adapt in Cold War-era America. “I just hope people recognize the work that went into it. If it means recognition for awards, so be it. It would be nice.”

Nice, indeed. Of course, very few small pictures have the kind of connections that can bring Travolta in for cocktails, or even the money to pay the bar tab for 75 people at Le Dome. Most founder in the dark, hoping that a few decent reviews, sufficiently repeated, will propel voters into screenings in theaters that can cost as much as $2,500 per booking.

“What do you when you’re up against an 800-pound gorilla?” asks publicist Ronni Chasen, who was helping the “Rhapsody” campaign. “You have an event like this. It does bring people out. It gets them attention. It brings a little focus to a small movie that’s a dark horse.”

Inevitably, whether or not a film gets exposure at all comes down to money.

“The budget of the movie impacts our choices,” says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing, which is behind “Monster’s Ball” and “Lantana,” underdog contenders both. “We have to build better mousetraps.”

“Lantana,” which cost about $3.3 million, has so far benefited from a seven-prize sweep, including best picture, at the Australian Film Institute awards Nov. 16 (Variety, Nov. 26 – Dec. 2).

“We feel like, through the exposure the film has had in the fall, it’s established itself as a credible contender for awards season honors,” Ortenberg says. “Knowing we weren’t going to outspend the competition, it’s important to get mentions in Entertainment Weekly and Variety.”

In addition, Lions Gate has held what it calls educational screenings of “Lantana” at colleges such as UCLA, USC and NYU. Australian consulates in New York, Los Angeles and Washington also have shown the film.

“Monster’s Ball,” a fast-tracked, $4.5-million production that began shooting in May, was screened for the first time at the closing night of the AFI Fest on Nov. 11.

“We knew we didn’t have the luxury of time,” Ortenberg says, “but our strategy was to launch it with a bang and instantly get it on everyone’s radar screen. It worked with the AFI. Out of that one screening it got rave reviews and instantly put Halle Berry on the short list for Oscar contenders. Now what we need to do is to keep the picture front and center, to the extent that we can.”

Hyperbole aside, it’s no small task to stand out in a sea of competing interests.

“It’s the old theory of David vs. Goliath,” says David Dinerstein, co-president of Paramount Classics, which released “Rhapsody” and had a similarly uphill climb — eventually resulting in two Academy Award nominations — with “You Can Count on Me” last year.

“What we lack in marketing dollars we have to make up in sheer passion and grassroots marketing,” says Dinerstein, whose company is also pushing three other relatively modest films — Ed Burns’ “Sidewalks of New York”; “Focus,” with Bill Macy and Laura Dern; and Barbet Schroeder’s “Our Lady of the Assassins.”

One of the advantages of releasing small quality films toward the end of the year is that you can spend the same promotional dollars for two distinct purposes — boosting box office and angling for nominations.

For “Sidewalks,” Burns has hit the college circuit, trying to boost the pic with younger audiences, and has appeared on Conan O’Brien’s talkfest and “The Today Show.” The former was aimed at the film’s core demos, while the “Today” visit may have snared some award voters.

“We may not be able to afford a full newspaper page, but perhaps we can get a smaller fractional ad that may actually get better placement,” Dinerstein says. “What we’re trying to do is what everyone is trying to do — get positive word of mouth, which will build an audience for the film and hopefully get it some awards consideration.”

Timmermann, one of the “Rhapsody” producers, is philosophical about the quest for awards. “I sometimes think films are like spreading the gospel, like propaganda,” she says. “You just have to get the message out there.”

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