Contenders say: ‘I’ll do anything’

Book readings, personal appearances among promo activities

The Oscar campaign trail has gotten wider this year.

In a season of contradictions and question marks, Academy Awards campaigners are coming up with alternative ways of promoting their candidates: book readings, special screenings and more personal appearances than you can shake a stick at.

When people in the media speak of Academy Awards campaigns, they’re often referring to the “for your consideration” ads taken out in Variety and other publications. But those ads comprise only a fraction of the strategy.

One of the biggest expenses comes from flying contenders around the globe for appearances on chatshows and at fetes; those airfare, hotel and expense tabs can be costly. And there are additional costs, such as duplication and mailing of viewing cassettes/DVDs and theater rentals for screenings.

Naturally, no one at the studios wants to talk about these things, even off the record. An Oscar campaign is more strategized, more intense and more secretive than any covert CIA operation.

But this year, it’s hard to miss the campaign innovations and intensifications. A few include:

  • On Jan. 7, the “In the Bedroom” stars appeared at West Hollywood’s Book Soup to read the short story that inspired the film. And at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art on Jan. 19, Ian McKellen was scheduled to read from “The Lord of the Rings” for local schoolkids.

  • For the first time, Fox Searchlight has taken out “for your consideration” ads in the New Yorker, of all places.

  • Decca Records and UMG Soundtracks on Jan. 15 offered a listening party for Hans Zimmer’s score of “Black Hawk Down,” followed by a screening of the pic.

  • “Ali” was able to use the drawing power of the Greatest. Muhammad Ali got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — well, not actually on the walk; it was on a nearby wall, since he didn’t want anyone walking on his star — plus a birthday celebration/TV show. Was it a coincidence that both events occurred smack dab in the middle of the kudos season?

  • The American Cinematheque in Hollywood has held salutes to Sean Penn and Lasse Hallstrom; Penn is also being honored by the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

  • Two studios are continuing the recent tradition of TV infomercials: DreamWorks, with “Shrek,” and Miramax, with a slew of its contenders this year — “Amelie,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “In the Bedroom,” “Iris,” “The Others,” “The Shipping News.” Half-hour documentaries on the making of these films are airing on L.A. and Gotham stations.

  • Last year, DreamWorks/ Universal held a series of “meet the filmmaker” screenings for “Gladiator” — which eventually won the best pic prize. Perhaps mindful of that victory, the studios have this year embraced that format, in which a screening, usually open to the public, is accompanied by a Q&A session with the stars, director and/or producer. Q&A’s have included “Amelie,” “Baran,” “Gosford Park,” “Moulin Rouge” and “The Others.”

  • Of course, there are the “special screenings,” such as the one Joanne Woodward and Martin Scorsese are hosting for “In the Bedroom” this week in Gotham.

Even the props got into the act. “The Fast and the Furious” was lucky enough to have the L.A. Auto Show in town and used the occasion to show off cars that were used in stunt sequences in the pic. Event was also good to publicize the pic for its DVD release.

And the Oscar contenders, as always, have a heavy presence, popping up at nearly every event for which they’re nominated (AFI Awards, Broadcast Film Critics Assn., etc.) In addition, they are the focus of parties and events thrown in their honor. For example, Baz Luhrmann was feted by such Gotham notables as Rosie O’Donnell and Julie Taymor, and met in Vegas with Tony Curtis and George Sidney. On the campaign trail, each such event becomes a photo op.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is very strict about monitoring the boundaries of campaigns. No telephone solicitations, no parties for a contender in which Academy members are the sole guests and, of course, no gifts or elaborate packaging for tapes and scripts.

But that can’t stop someone from throwing a party for a possible nominee at which many Acad members just happen to be among the guests. Acad members, after all, are members of the film community, and that’s who you want as your guests.

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