Shouting match

In screener ban's wake, indies are intent on making noise

There may be small movies at this year’s Academy Awards, but there are no small Oscar campaigns.

Specialty divisions have dominated much of the year’s campaigning, with Warner Independent Pictures kicking it up a notch for “A Very Long Engagement” and Fox Searchlight stumping early and often for “Kinsey” and “Sideways.”

“There are a lot of people Miramaxing,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard, referring to the number of smaller companies vigorously jockeying for Oscar recognition. The chances of seeing a for-your-consideration ad from Fox Searchlight or Warner Independent are as good as spotting one from their studio parents.

The costly nature of Oscar campaigns necessitates a hefty marketing budget — one that can only be sustained by the major specialty players. “Most of the people who have had success over the years are well funded enough to make a dent, and many of those are studio divisions,” notes Miramax vet and Warner Independent Pictures topper Mark Gill. “But clearly unaffiliated companies like Lions Gate have enough. Where it’s very tough is for a microdistributor.”

Indeed, Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, says, “The studios are no longer throwing money at for-your-consideration ads for Sylvester Stallone in’Daylight.’ Now they’re throwing all of that money into films that grossed $6 million-$10 million, foreign-language films and documentaries. It’s an enormous shift. It’s major studio or Miramax-type spending being aimed at films that are supposed to be above, beyond or beneath all of that.”

After all, the raison d’etre for studio specialty divisions is to take bigger creative risks at much lower costs than their studio parents. And while execs deny that their marketing budgets may get supplemented by studios during awards season, these divisions likely have bigger coffers (versus stand-alone distribs) to begin with.

Most execs insist their units function completely separate from the parent congloms. “We have our own budget and if I blow it, I blow it,” says Focus Features’ co-prexy James Schamus. “Obviously, Universal is supportive, but you don’t get satchels of cash.

“As an autonomously run affiliate of a News Corp. or NBC Universal, the reason you’re there is to take aesthetic risks. But we have to be responsible and pay real attention to the realities of the marketplace,” Schamus adds. “We run businesses; we’re not best-in-show pets.”

But to successfully compete in the Oscar race, there is a minimum to get into the game, admits Fine Line exec VP of marketing Marian Koltai-Levine.

“You need to get cassettes and DVDs out to everybody, and that’s probably about $100,000,” another exec explains. “And then of course things scale up dramatically in to the millions fairly quickly.”

Companies with smaller expense accounts can’t afford to squander as much on campaigning. “We can’t really compete on a dollar-for-dollar basis,” Newmarket topper Bob Berney says. “We try to tie the theatrical release to the campaign. By releasing at the end of the year, it helps us get more bang for our dollar.”

Newmarket will probably spend 50% more on marketing for “The Woodsman” because of Kevin Bacon’s Oscar chances, Berney adds.

Most companies use a similar tactic. Admittedly cheap, Sony Classics’ Bernard is releasing a number of films (including “The Merchant of Venice” and “House of Flying Daggers”) during what he calls the “the voting period.” “It becomes very cost-effective to advertise them and have that advertising piggy-back on the Oscar campaign.”

Adds Focus’ Schamus, “There’s a lot of stuff that appears as retail that is actually Academy, and as Academy that is actually retail.” One such strategy is buying cable ads according to Academy ZIP codes.

“The costs are implicit in trying to launch a movie,” agrees Danny Rosett, head of United Artists. “There is a premium to pay, but for these films that are publicity driven anyway, the award season is just a publicity campaign on steroids, so you bite the bullet and you do it.”

But for films not opening during Oscar season, studio divisions have a built-in advantage: They can benefit from a major DVD consumer push through their parent company’s home entertainment arms. “Last year, with ‘Lost in Translation,'” says Schamus, “we were able to leverage a lot of our second-wave marketing with the timing of the DVD release into the Academy context.”

After Focus’ “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” DVD was released through Universal Home Video in late September, Schamus notes, “We’ve seen an enormous up-tick in Academy attention towards Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.”

Close-knit studio indies, such as MGM/UA and New Line/Fine Line, further blur the boundaries between parent and child. “We have our own dedicated marketing team,” says UA’s Rosett, “but when it comes to running the awards campaign, we tap into Adam Keen, head of special projects at MGM. When you need to plug in and really give it the push for the Academy, you need more hands on deck.”

“We work very closely together,” echoes Fine Line’s Koltai-Levine. “In the same way that ‘Lord of the Rings’ was spearheaded by New Line but we helped; we’re doing the same thing this year, but the roles are reversed.

“When you’re in these campaigns, which are like hand-to-hand combat, unification is very important,” she adds. “We want to win, so why leave part of your army at home?”

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