Studios rev up for race

It’s the new Oscar campaign season: bigger, longer and uncut.

For the first time in years, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have too many strong choices for the five best-pic slots. There’s little consensus on what’s a shoo-in, and the uncertainty is making everyone kudos-crazy.

The campaign season usually kicks into high gear in December but got off to an early start in October — meaning six months of tubthumping. (Though Oscar nomination ballots only went out on Jan. 10, campaigners are already exhausted.)

Studios are intensifying old battle techniques as they add new ones (a flood of Q&A sessions) and reach out to new platforms (such as the Hollywood Film Festival) to tout their wares.

And these eager little campaigners are doing their best to drag everybody into the act.

Hollywood is playing a wacky match-columns game: Pair a celebrity with an appropriate film. Reese Witherspoon and friends invite you to celebrate “Monsoon Wedding.” Salma Hayek wants you to join her for “Y tu mama tambien.” Your host for “Antwone Fisher”: Arianna Huffington.

(But shouldn’t Arianna be hosting “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? Because she’s Greek, not because she’s fat.)

Not everyone is so eager to help.

One producer recently griped that the studio bullied him into hosting a cocktail party in honor of a director he hadn’t worked with in 10 years. A screenwriter says he was hounded by another studio to appear at a Q&A evening about his film, since other contributors to the pic (the director, stars, production designer, composer, et al.) were hosting similar sessions.

On Jan. 16, Martin Scorsese will hotfoot it from the AFI awards luncheon to a DGA appearance tied in with UCLA’s tribute to his films.

That same day, the “Antwone Fisher” team will juggle their schedule among the AFI event; a Creative Coalition screening, dinner and salute (Fisher himself will receive the org’s Spotlight Award); and a Peter Chernin-hosted cocktail party celebrating Fisher’s new book “Who Will Cry For the Little Boy?”

This week, aside from the AFI salute, contenders will be shaking hands with voters at the People’s Choice Awards, the Golden Satellite Awards, the L.A. Film Critics luncheon, Broadcast Film Critics Awards, a BAFTA tea party and the Palm Springs Festival.

The one element missing so far this year: mudslinging. No one is labeling a rival’s film as misinformed or hurling charges of anti-Semitism at a pic’s lead character (not that this supposed badmouthing influenced any votes in prior years).

However, the tension level is high. After a December screening of one studio’s pic, a rival exec stood in the lobby and shrugged to an acquaintance, “There’s no way this is going to win anything.”

The next day, the exec received an angry call from the distributor’s marketing topper, screaming about the “badmouthing of our film.”

As one awards consultant sighed, “We’re dealing with wounded bears here.”

The reason for all this frenzy: The Oscar race is up in the air. Voters haven’t yet made up their minds, partly due to the year-end glut of contenders.

Miramax senior exec publicist Cynthia Swartz shrugs: “Usually by this time in the race, people have a clearer idea of what’s going to happen. But I think people are still seeing the films. They’re catching up now with the films.”

Usually, December will include a slew of highly hyped debuts that end up falling short of the mark. This year, the ratio of success is surprisingly high.

November and December saw the bow of such pics as “About Schmidt,” “Adaptation,” “Antwone Fisher,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “Chicago,” “Far From Heaven,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Hours,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Narc,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “The Pianist” and “25th Hour.”

Studios want to make sure voters see their film before Oscar ballots are due Jan. 29.

In addition, there are strong pics from the first 10 months of the year, such as “Minority Report,” “Road to Perdition” and “About a Boy.”

As usual, there is a discrepancy between Oscar buzz and the “surefire” bellwethers, such as critics awards. Most Oscar pundits are predicting best-pic noms for “Chicago” and “The Hours.” While the latter film won some major critics’ honors, the former film didn’t.

There are many other pics (“Antwone,” “Signs,” “Narc,” “White Oleander”) that are on Oscar’s radar, though they have been generally overlooked by the Golden Globes and critics. Studios point to past pics like “The Cider House Rules,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Green Mile” and “The Thin Red Line” that were similarly shunned by the bellwethers but earned plenty of Oscar glory.

The uncertainty can lead to optimism. Certainly, many are cheered by the wide variety of year-end honors.

“That has made everybody a winner so far,” says New Line prez of domestic marketing Russell Schwartz. “Everybody has hope, and rightfully so.”

But just to make sure that hope is not also left to chance, the publicists and others are getting out the big guns — and the rest of the arsenal.

When people use the term “awards campaign,” they sometimes are referring to the ads that appear in Variety and other publications. But those ads are just the tip of the iceberg, as studios buy TV blurbs, send kudos contenders around the globe, foot the bill for parties and mail out screening cassettes.

Acad campaigners study one another’s moves with an attentiveness that borders on obsession. If a studio has success with a campaign strategy, you can be sure that rivals will soon borrow that technique.

With fewer than 6,000 voters, one or two votes can make the difference between Oscar recognition and shut-out. So every option is tried.

“Everybody is playing catch-up,” says one awards strategist. “If the other guy’s doing it, we’d better, too.”

This year, one studio sent screening copies of its film to members of the writers, editors and sound guilds, so other studios followed suit.

And after DreamWorks-Universal hosted a series of Q&A sessions for “Gladiator” two years ago, rivals in 2002 copied the technique; this year, the phenomenon has exploded.

Fox Searchlight, for example, will this month alone host more than 20 Q&A’s for its films.

New Line has been hosting Q&A’s for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” since November.

New Line’s Schwartz observes, “Q&A sessions are most effective when they are presented under the auspices of peer-group sponsorship — i.e., the guilds, rather than the director or cast appearing at a screening during the theatrical run. The latter more definitively channels the goodwill that these sessions elicit back to Academy members.”

A studio can easily spend $10 million on a big, splashy campaign. Multiply that by a number of studios, add in the outlay of indies, and we’re talking big bucks.

But if the costs are high, so are the rewards.

An Academy Award means prestige and class. And in the last decade, a best-pic win has boosted the films’ box office on an average of 24%, and ancillaries also feel the windfall.

Oscars, of course, represent the pinnacle of recognition for artistic excellence. But, privately, they also represent ego gratification.

Last year, the alleged mud-slinging was blown out of proportion, but it did underline one fact: Sometimes the campaigning gets personal.

Such recent rivalries as DreamWorks vs. Miramax have added a personal touch to the Oscar race. The question is whether the current campaigning will ignite new feuds.

So far, everyone is being exceedingly polite. Nobody has an unkind word.

For this story, many people were eager to talk, but most conversations were peppered with phrases like “This is off the record,” “You didn’t hear this from me, but …” and “I don’t want to get into a discussion of that.”

Mmm-hmm. This is how Hollywood gets the reputation as a town full of nice people.

But tensions usually build as the race goes on. “There haven’t been any shenanigans so far,” says one cynic. “Last year, it started getting ugly around Golden Globes
time.” The Golden Globes this year are coming up Jan. 19.

In other words: Fasten your seatbelts. The campaign may be ready to enter Phase 2.

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