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More boutiques battle for top awards

Quest for Oscar gold is now a game of equals

It’s not your imagination. Oscar campaigning isn’t what it used to be.

Consider that just five years ago, “old Miramax” was waging another scorched-earth battle en route to a staggering 37 nominations, spread among the likes of “Chicago,” “Frida,” “Gangs of New York” and shared pics like “The Hours.” Harvey Weinstein was the engineer of a record-setting freight train that notched 17 best-pic noms in 18 years, still the most of any distributor except Universal since 1980 (see page 28) and all the more remarkable given the company’s hardscrabble roots.

Today, the number of players has increased dramatically, from newer studio arms like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent to beefed-up indies like Lionsgate, ThinkFilm and the Weinstein Co. Just as significant, there exists now a unanimous belief in the importance of awards, whereas a decade ago a handful of companies chased them at all costs while just as many kept it on the periphery of their businesses.

Despite the increased number of hopefuls, tactics are more routine and down-the-middle, with spending more closely overseen by top execs at the parent company. The extravagant showmanship of Weinstein-era Miramax and Terry Press at DreamWorks has given way to a more democratized and, disconcertingly for those who enjoy a good scandal, almost honorable process.

“The truth is that the kind of saturation spending that we’ve seen over the years may not be as effective as it has in years past. There’s a point at which you start to turn people off,” says Focus Features chief James Schamus. “There are more aspirants, but we’ve not had the same kind of upfront spending that there has been before.”

Beyond the hype

Focus, a major factor in this year’s race with “Atonement,” “Eastern Promises” and “Lust, Caution,” has two simple objectives in its campaign, Schamus says: getting people to see the movies and then reminding them of what they liked about them. “We’re dealing with the most sophisticated possible audience in terms of hype,” he says. “That’s not to say that anyone’s above hype, but you have to proceed with an awareness of the target.”

Restraint was never in the vocabulary of Harvey Weinstein, who garnered only grudging acknowledgement from peers at the time but who is now hailed as the architect of the modern Oscar campaign.

“Miramax changed independent distribution by pushing films wider and wider,” notes Picturehouse topper Bob Berney. “It was also Miramax that pushed the Academy to adjust its rules. They always had the sense of putting on a big show. Was that a great business decision? Hard to say, but it had a huge impact.”

Films didn’t take full-page ads in the New York Times before Harvey. Oscar hopefuls along the old Merchant-Ivory prestige lines didn’t have items planted about them on Page Six. There wasn’t the level of push-polling and jury-rigging that would make Karl Rove blush. Directors and writers and supporting actors wouldn’t troupe from one event to the next in the name of a nomination.

And the spending. Oh, the spending. While it is demonstrably untrue that Oscars themselves can be flat-out bought, nominations are about sheer volume, and the 1990s and early 2000s — thanks to Miramax and its $750 million, Disney-sanctioned war chest — had the resources to make sure its films were never out of the conversation.

Harvey Weinstein — who has fielded his best crop of hopefuls since the great Disney divorce, with “I’m Not There,” “The Great Debaters” and “Control” on the shortlist — believes the spirit of campaigning has shifted. “We live in a business that is about creating dreams,” he says. “So if people are going to realize those dreams we have to find some small way or a smart way to get the movie noticed. But so many people are afraid to bruise their egos. We made mistakes and took chances.”

With his trademark lack of modesty, Weinstein adds, “I feel like Hank Aaron. I may see someone come along and beat my record, some Barry Bonds. But I’m still waiting.”

In terms of his campaign philosophy in the Miramax era, Weinstein recalls, “We made people involved with a film believe that if they had contact (with the campaign) then they would be able to make a difference.”

Though some rivals point to the Miramax heyday with a mix of disbelief and scorn, Weinstein asserts that “we achieved economic results. You could do a lot by just getting those nominations. You could save a movie in trouble.”

Given inflation, increased ad rates and the trend toward consumer ad spending, overall outlays on Oscar campaigning have been inching higher and higher, but they are far less concentrated.

“There are a lot of players backing a lot of horses,” says Miramax chief Daniel Battsek. “There is a lot of noise, but it doesn’t always get heard. In the end, you have to have the goods.”

Weinstein believes that the studio specialty divisions playing dominant roles in Oscar season is “probably a good trend. It’s better for shareholders and better that the studios can focus on big event movies. When I was a kid, I remember watching when studio films like ‘Doctor Dolittle’ were getting nominated. Today, it’s about the specialty divisions, and the result is better films.”

‘Shotgun effect’

Berney notes it is only the midway point in a long season, and with so many hopefuls, there is a growing sense of urgency that only accelerated with the annoucement of the Golden Globe noms.

“Money is definitely starting to flow into the marketplace,” he says. “People see that nominations are important for the image of the film, so you see them chasing awards and ignoring the business side of the equation. With a lot of companies, you’ll see ad after ad. It’s a shotgun effect.”

This year, with no clear front-runners in most categories, the race is a free-for-all. That has revived the age-old practice of bending Oscar rules, says Mark Urman, theatrical distribution head at ThinkFilm.

Along with “No Country for Old Men” (a split with Paramount Vantage) and “Gone Baby Gone,” Miramax is pinning its hopes on “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The French-language film symbolizes the 2007-08 campaign in that it has been screened within an inch of its life. How else to persuade voters to get behind a subtitled film about a paralyzed man who can move only his left eyelid?

“I love Q&As,” Battsek says. “There’s nothing better than to be able to showcase your film and the talent and creators behind it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by everyone, and the number of screenings is starting to approach the number of ads. In fact, one wrinkle this year is how many ads consist of novel packaging of a company’s screening schedule.

The homogeneity of the screening scrum, in fact, reflects the general sense of sameness overall.

“It’s a problem when it becomes so formulaic and everyone feels like they have to do things because the other guy did them,” Urman says.

Still, a less win-at-all-costs atmosphere pleases some people in the middle of the action.

“I would rather go to the Academy Awards with my friends and colleagues and celebrate the best of our industry than show up at what is essentially a peace conference after a civil war,” Schamus says. “If you look at Peter Rice at Fox Searchlight, Daniel Battsek at Miramax, Michael (Barker) and Tom (Bernard) at Sony Classics, we’re all interested in making and releasing great movies. I am as boring now as I was 10 years ago and this suits me.”

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