As Oscar race heats up, studios bend rules

When a movie studio breaks Academy Award campaign rules, it hardly faces a firing squad. The offending entity merely forfeits a few tickets to the Oscar ceremony.

Such wrist-slaps were incurred late last week by DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Classics, which committed violations that illustrate the subtle excesses of this year’s kudos campaign. It’s no surprise that the offending films are “Gladiator” (a DreamWorks-Universal co-venture) and Sony Classics’ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the two most-nominated pics in the race.

According to an Academy source, each studio gave up four tickets for Sunday’s show at the Shrine Auditorium — two in the orchestra, two in the first balcony — out of its total allotment of 20.

DreamWorks was dinged for using an image of an Oscar statuette in print ads. Sony Classics crossed the line by sending DVD copies of “Crouching Tiger” to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences who already had received a videotape version.

A couple of other campaigns, especially in the heated final days, drew the scrutiny of the Academy. Any of those penalties will be determined after Sunday’s event, the Acad source said.

With word of the violations starting to circulate and Oscar voting ending today, even the most battle-tested PR pros are marveling at the campaign season’s many departures from tradition. The fresh — and often rule-bending — ways that pics were promoted mark this year’s gold rush as perhaps the most unorthodox in Oscar’s 73 years.

Since the best-picture winner averages a B.O. boost of $28.8 million, the seven-figure outlay for an Oscar campaign can be a sound investment. This year, when there is an open field for the top prize, it’s no surprise that studio spending is heavier than ever.

But studios have begun to flout the old campaign rules, widening their reach beyond the usual flurry of print ads and re-releases. Time-worn Oscar strategies have evolved into an array of creative and line-blurring PR ploys:

  • Studios are engaged in a rush to relevance, taking out ads in the news sections of major papers and stoking the fires of op-ed pieces.

    Since its May bow, “Gladiator” — a front-runner, with 12 nominations — has held onto its reputation as a supremely well-crafted popcorn movie. As a counter-attack, its best-pic rivals are being touted as socially and politically relevant works that not only entertain but can change lives.

  • Nominated stars are making more public appearances than ever — at special screenings of their films (even rarely seen older ones, under the “retrospective” rubric), other award shows and a succession of suspiciously timed parties.

  • The studios have increased spending on TV spots; rather than the usual montage of visual bites from the films, “Traffic” and “Chocolat” ads employ stars (e.g., Michael Douglas, Johnny Depp) singing the praises of those pics’ directors and producers. (Now that’s acting.)

It’s a close race. When there is a clear-cut front-runner such as “Titanic,” rivals pull back on their campaigning. But each of the five films — “Chocolat,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Gladiator” and “Traffic” — has its vocal proponents. And this is the first year when four of the five best picture entrants have passed $100 million at the domestic box office. (“Chocolat” has so far earned $56 million domestically.)

Daily Variety, it should be noted, has a rooting interest in the direction and nature of all this campaigning, since it benefits from all those “for your consideration” ads.

But in truth, those ads are only a fraction of the outlay for an Oscar campaign. In addition to the cost of sending out viewing cassettes, DVDs and other material (scripts, music scores, etc.) to members of the Academy, there are the expensive TV ads and the cost of sending celebs on global treks to tout their work.

As the Crowe flies, there are high tabs for airline fares, hotels and travel expenses for a star or director (and possible entourage). And when a nominee travels from the BAFTA awards in London to a New York screening to the SAG honors in L.A., those bills mount up.

The approach of Sunday’s ceremony has prompted the annual awkward dance between the Hollywood marketing machine and those who insist that films are works of art that cannot be sold like cans of soup.

“Chocolat,” “Crouching Tiger” and “Traffic” are essentially arthouse movies. “Brockovich” has gathered fans in the acting and directing segments of the Acad, while others, particularly in the tech branches, consider “Gladiator” the ultimate achievement in Hollywood moviemaking (even though it had a British director, New Zealand-born leading man and Moroccan locales).

While “Gladiator” has little promise of a box office boost, DreamWorks (which has the pic domestically) and Universal (overseas) are waging a particularly aggressive campaign.

Certainly prestige and ego strokes are a factor. But so is cash. Like “Brockovich,” “Gladiator” has played out at the box office, but stands to gain from ancillary revenue (video sales, TV syndication, etc.) and value as library titles.

Dream scenario

DreamWorks has an added incentive: The company is reinventing itself by negotiating a new distribution deal and, after “American Beauty,” it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have back-to-back best-pic wins.

“Because ‘Gladiator’ is the front-runner, all of the others are trying to make their movies seem more important,” observed one studio publicity exec.

In an appeal to the elite (members of AMPAS) disguised as a message for the masses, pricey full-page or double-page ads have frequently appeared in national newspapers for several contenders.

USA Films has been trumpeting the nonentertainment coverage of “Traffic” and the issues it raises. ABC’s “Nightline” is devoting all five segs this week to the war on drugs, frequently using clips from the film.

Universal-Columbia’s “Brockovich” likewise has drawn attention to the story that inspired the movie, with the real-life Brockovich as omnipresent on newscasts as the pic’s star, Julia Roberts.

Miramax screened “Chocolat” at the United Nations and promoted the bouquets the film received from humanitarian groups.

“Gladiator,” slickly packaged though it may be, has plenty to say about society’s fixation on violence and spectacle. But DreamWorks isn’t stressing that angle in its Oscar push — mainly because it doesn’t have to.

“Gladiator” leads the field with 12 nominations. In 17 of the past 18 years, the film with the most nominations has taken home the big prize. (The exception came in 1992, when “Bugsy” lost out to “The Silence of the Lambs.”)

Risks aplenty

Many publicists see plenty of risk in a campaign based on a film’s au courant qualities. Just ask boosters of Disney’s “The Insider,” which went 0-for-7 in last year’s Oscar chase.

“You don’t want to turn off people from going to the movie as entertainment,” noted one veteran.

Contributing fresh spins to the Oscar race are Sony Pictures Classics, with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and USA Films, with “Traffic.” Both have guided arthouse pics to a few wins (and Sony Classics’ “Howards End” scored nine noms in 1993, including one for best picture), but this year they have breathed the rare air of nomination glory plus commercial success. The result: a degree of expectation and a higher level of scrutiny by their corporate parents.

Campaigners are thus experimenting with alternate routes of publicity.

On Feb. 9, the Friday just prior to the announcement of the noms, non-industry moviegoers may have been baffled by the barrage of ads for films such as “Pollock” or “Brockovich” that were not even playing in theaters at the time.

Celeb-hosted screenings have become especially popular as actors get religion as to what an Oscar can do for their careers. Jack Nicholson introduced a showing of “Before Night Falls” in Los Angeles aimed at raising Javier Bardem’s profile. A remarkably well-behaved Russell Crowe showed up this month to answer audience questions at a public showing of “Gladiator” and a parade of the film’s participants similarly greeted the public for a week.

As the feverish 2001 campaign winds down, one pattern is clear: Oscar apostates like Woody Allen or Marlon Brando are fading into the background. Today’s nominees not only deign to hit the campaign trail, they view an Academy Award bid as a chore of privilege.

“They recognize this as their time,” said one indie publicist. “I’ve known people who later regretted not getting out and promoting themselves. People assume that if they’re in the running this year that they’ll be in it again. And that’s not always the case.”

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