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Talent turnout crucial in costly campaigns

It might not be akin to Al Gore stumping for another shot at the presidency almost two years before the 2004 election, but Oscar campaigns have become almost as far-sighted, and almost as expensive. What’s more, it’s become increasingly important to feature actual campaigners in award season marketing pushes.

For instance, Sissy Spacek was heavily favored by some prognosticators to win an Oscar for her turn in Miramax’s “In the Bedroom.” So when Halle Berry grabbed the statuette, it wasn’t lost on marketing mavens that the honoree had labored to promote Lions Gate’s “Monster’s Ball” while Spacek remained more aloof.

“Halle showed up everywhere, and that blew away Sissy,” observes a veteran of many Oscar campaigns. “Actors show up at the right place at the right time and talk to the right people. They have to shake hands and kiss babies, so to speak.”

“We paid for a lot of first-class plane tickets,” recalls Lions Gate’s prexy Tom Ortenberg, who acknowledges an early and frank conversation with Berry about “Monster’s” marketing.

But of course the typical Academy campaign involves even more than marshaling talent for public appearances and papering Oscar voters’ doorsteps with trade ads. There are sundry other challenges that take so much time and money that even major studios, with their warren of ad/pub/promo troops, bring in outside consultants.

Filling seats

The most basic component of an Oscar campaign involves getting Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members actually to see the product. But nowadays the press is being courted just as heavily, with screenings of holiday releases beginning as early as September, and special screenings for Acad members moved up from Thanksgiving to Halloween.

If voters and journalists find the proliferation of screenings overwhelming, the mailing of DVD or VHS screeners makes it pretty hard to ignore a film altogether. But the cost has become prohibitive.

Small screening rooms charge about $700 for a two-hour booking, but bigger theaters run upward of $3,000. On the other hand, screeners cost $5 or more each to create and go to all 6,000 Academy members — whose contact info is obtained through outside sources; the Academy doesn’t dish any mailing lists.

There’s also a hefty pricetag on shepherding talent to promo appearances, as they may need to be flown in specially on a private jet. But that more than $10,000-per-trip levy is just one more line item in an award season marketing budget that reportedly can creep north of $10 million for the highest-profile studio release.

(It’s all but impossible to crunch firm figures for Oscar campaigns, as data is closely guarded and expenditures can be listed as pic marketing expenses or alternately under specific award season promo budgets.)

Pricey or not, getting stars to help push Oscar-nommed pics is considered a must. The practice reached a new level back in 2000, when DreamWorks got Russell Crowe to appear at a “public” screening of “Gladiator” for the film’s DVD release. It ultimately copped the pic Oscar, not to mention a statuette for the Aussie actor.

Bending Acad rules

“I remember saying, wow, that’s really creative, how they were able to get a lot of publicity from that appearance without running into trouble with Academy rules,” a publicist at a rival studio recalls.

AMPAS rules prohibit any promo appearances, trinket giveaways or even food and beverages from being featured at any screenings to which members are specifically invited. But all bets are off when the public is involved.

DreamWorks brought pic talent and craft pros to a bunch of L.A. public screenings for “Gladiator.” Some of the appearances prompted TV coverage, and most were hyped prominently in newspaper ads, which were read by many Academy members.

AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis isn’t shy about revealing his personal distaste for Oscar promos, and he insists they simply don’t work.

“I don’t think artists decide who to give their awards to based on marketing campaigns,” Davis says. “Academy members are artists — directors and actors who are the cream of their fields. The idea that they’re going to be swayed by some kind of mailing or ad as opposed to what they’ve seen up on the screen is absurd.”

Studio marketeers say that view misses the point, however. The idea of Oscar marketing is simply to “remind voters what they liked about a movie,” muses one studio publicist.

Miramax’s veteran awards maven Cynthia Swartz says talent appearances can help goose attendance at public screenings of award contenders.

“The bottom line of any Academy campaign is getting people to see the movie,” Swartz says. “The more you can get people to see your movie instead of someone else’s the better. And that’s the point of doing those things.”

“It’s all about making an impression,” she adds. “It’s drawing a visceral reaction, that (emotional) response.”

Like their studio colleagues, marketing pros at smaller distribs strive to press voters’ emotional hot buttons, but they’re confined to working within much smaller budgets.

“People ask if an independent film has the opportunity to get noticed, and yeah they do, but not as much,” observes Tony Angelotti, whose PR firm is well-known for work on behalf of Hollywood majors during Oscar season. “I don’t accept the fact that money buys the award, but money buys attention.”

One way indie publicists deal with the lack of big campaign budgets is relying on free publicity in the trades and mainstream press, says Mark Pogachefsky, a partner in marketing consultancy MPRM.

“You have to become part of the discussion, and that’s a part of the publicity process,” Pogachefsky says. “There are articles that come out all the time on awards prognostication. And the first step is to become part of those articles because press publicity can be a cost-effective way of getting your message across.”

Decorum be damned

Meanwhile, though even the most profligate marketing execs strive for some sense of decorum in even the most lavish of award season campaigns, there have been rather egregious exceptions.

“A couple of years ago, things were getting out of hand,” AMPAS’ Davis remembers. “There was a fear it would become like ‘Here’s our tape and a VCR to play it on.’ Somebody actually did send out a Walkman.”

Academy rules are quite clear on things such as screeners and promotional mailings, he notes.

“You can’t send out gold- or silver-inlaid boxes,” Davis quips. “They have to be absolutely plain-wrapped and can’t even be wrapped in blurbs. We don’t want anything that can be interpreted as an incentive to vote in a certain direction.”

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