Q&As are latest wrinkle in campaigning

Just before facing some 500 members of the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominating committee after a recent screening of “Far From Heaven,” Julianne Moore, new to the Q&A game, turned to a publicist to ask what this was all about. “It seems to be the thing to do now,” he replied.

That’s an understatement.

It’s that time of year where studio and indie marketers will try any new strategy in the quest for awards recognition. One way to attract attention that’s gaining popularity is the ritual of post-screening “discussions,” commonly known as the Q&A.

It seems to be a way not only to try to reach Academy voters but also to impress influential groups who dispense their own pre-Oscar awards. The still-young season has seen hopefuls such as Moore, Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman, Adrien Brody, Salma Hayek, Nicolas Cage, Denzel Washington, M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron, Michael Caine, Greg Kinnear and Ralph Fiennes “live on stage” answering audience queries such as, “How long did you spend in makeup?”; “Do you really play the piano?”; and “Can you paint like Frida or did you just fake it?”

One struggling actor asked “Far From Heaven” co-star Dennis Haysbert if they could have breakfast together to discuss job opportunities on his Fox TV series “24.”

Even Jack Nicholson, whose personal appearances usually are limited to Staples Center this time of year, recently submitted to questions at the Directors Guild’s “Under the Influence” series in a well-timed grilling moderated by his “About Schmidt” director Alexander Payne.

However, many of these special Q&A screenings are not officially sanctioned by any organization but rather arranged by studio marketing departments for members of the guilds — directors, writers and the SAG awards nominating committee.

It is not lost on campaign architects that the membership of these orgs strongly overlaps with that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which amended its promotional guidelines in 2001 to outlaw any screenings directly soliciting its members that feature the “live participation of the film’s artists before or after” the film rolls.

The Acad’s move to ban Q&As is widely thought to have been hatched after DreamWorks convinced eventual best actor victor Russell Crowe to appear at AMC’s Century 14 between showings of “Gladiator” to which Academy members were invited — along with local news crews.

Now it’s the guilds and other groups with an awards arsenal, like BAFTA-LA, that are targeted, especially in the months leading up to the Oscars. BAFTA-LA’s executive director, Don Haber, says his 960-member group, which includes a “significant number” of Academy members, is working overtime.

“We used to have maybe three or four special Q&As a year, but right now it’s more like three or four a week,” Haber says, mentioning planned appearances by George Clooney, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger.

Last year, a “Moulin Rouge” Q & A at the American Cinematheque was covered by “Entertainment Tonight,” bringing that particular Q&A national attention.

So why are so many people jumping on this bandwagon? Fox Searchlight marketing prexy Nancy Utley, who regularly sends her contenders on the Q&A circuit, sees it as a way to get potential voters out of the house as well as gain attention without spending a lot of money.

“This is something you can do that’s pretty affordable, and I think any time you come in contact with people who made the movie, you generate sympathy for what they were trying to accomplish and (voters will) think better of it,” she says.

So even if Q&As are disallowed at official Academy watering holes, the practice looks like a keeper. But does targeting the guilds and other groups really have a chance at affecting the outcome of the Oscar race itself?

“I think when you are doing an awards campaign, you just want to feel you’re leaving no stone unturned,” says Utley.

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