Award season’s dark arts

Consultants must cut through clutter while minding the golden rules

Each year, eager publicists seek the one truly brilliant idea that will make their nominees break out of the pack, dazzle the award voters and win for their clients prestigious awards.

Especially key: That client would have been overlooked — shamefully, even criminally, overlooked — had not that bright idea been put into effect.

This year’s nominees for Brightest Idea by an Overachieving Publicist surely will include sending personal DVD players pre-loaded with a client’s work to award voters. It’s the perfect year for this. The machine’s price had dipped below $200, everyone wants one — and everyone who doesn’t want one can sell them on eBay. Everybody wins.

Except that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules won’t allow voters to accept them. And even the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. told one network in advance that sending DVD players bent the rules.

So when Paramount Television and UPN delivered — and then had to recall — the Polaroid PDV-0700 that went to HFPA members to promote “Everyone Hates Chris,” the 2006 award season saw its first bright idea crash and burn.

Before the season ends, surely other attempts to garner nomination glory will gain notoriety. (The name for this could be the Robert Wise Memorial Letter Award.) And this won’t always be the overachieving publicists’ fault. The ground on which the game is played has shifted.

First of all, Harvey Weinstein — who in years past set the award season pace — isn’t in the running the way he once was. So should publicists prepare for a kinder, gentler campaign season? Or will all the former Miramax troops be using the tactics learned under him in their new gigs?

“Harvey dominated campaigns to such a degree that he forced other people to do more advertising because they were afraid of being lost and overpowered,” says one award-season elder statesman. “What you’re seeing now is a very good, last-minute Harvey Weinstein campaign for ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents.’ But it’s not anything like what he did in years past.”

As for the ex-Miramaxers, another campaigner says: “They don’t know anything except what they learned with Harvey. They’re going to do what they know.”

Another change has been the rise of the blogs. Depending on whom you talk to, they are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (this from the rare “Macbeth”-quoting studio publicist) to something that at least has to be watched at least as carefully as the blogs watch the campaigners.

Award campaigners must feel like ants in a biology class the way they’re under analysis between the Envelope and the Red Carpet alone. This heightened scrutiny itself could make for a kinder, gentler year.

Perhaps because of this, the “Macbeth”-quoting publicist says: “I haven’t felt a coordinated campaign against anything — yet. There are always going to be some grenades and brickbats, but there’s not too much this year.”

One publicist thinks this might be a year when, oddly enough, “Campaigns are focused on things that actually matter.” He thought this year was unique because “a lot of the vanity campaigning has gone by the wayside. Like, I don’t know if I’m getting a DVD of ‘Fun With Dick & Jane.’ ”

And if vanity campaigns have lessened, so has the effect of bigger campaigns upon the voters.

“A few years ago you could have bought your way in with a ‘Geisha’ or a ‘Rent,'” says a studio publicist. “So far that’s not necessarily resonating.”

Some of the promotional tools being used early this season don’t exactly stand out as especially aggressive or evil: a book, a celebrity using his celebrity, studio execs throwing a party.

Focus Features created photo-driven glossy books for “The Constant Gardener” and “Pride & Prejudice” that were sent out to voters and also were sent out in copies of Daily Variety. They were splashy, but still just books.

George Clooney is shamelessly using George Clooney to promote his films. He’s done more Q&As than George W. Bush since the last election. “It’s the kind of thing you can only do with a Russell Crowe or a Clooney, where you can get that kind of attention,” says one publicist.

And Fox’s Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos throwing parties at their homes has gained into a legendary, almost mythic status, among rival campaigners. In the end, even the most jaded campaigner says he’d rather take the high road.

“If it all turns into what merits it most wins,” he says, “than that’s the way it should be.”

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