Not even a year into his first term as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis last March set out onto the stage of the Kodak Theater to make the traditional Oscar telecast pitch for the org.
“As I was making that long walk — and it was a long walk — I was thinking, ‘Is this me? Is this really me?’ Once I was there, I glanced into the audience and one of the first people I saw was Steven Spielberg, who was just sitting there with a nice smile on his face. Then I looked to the left and there was my wife, and I was rolling.”
That ultimate moment for Ganis, who today picks up ICG Publicists’ Lifetime Achievement Award, came after a career of putting other people and projects in the limelight — either in PR, marketing or as a studio executive. Now a producer, recently of “Akeelah and the Bee,” he admits that “in my heart and soul … I am a publicist.”
“Even though the techniques have changed, the fertile imagination of a good publicist is something to behold,” he says. “I love it. I am the president of the Academy, but my job is to promote the art of film, with the love and understanding of film.”
Ganis got his start in the mailroom of the Lee Solters publicity agency in New York, witnessing a legendary era of press stunts including one cooked up for Broadway producer David Merrick. His 1961 show “Subways Are for Sleeping” was drawing mediocre reviews, so Merrick found a host of Gotham residents with the same names as the city’s most famous critics. He treated them to dinner, then the show, then used their raves in blurb ads. “That,” Ganis says, “is the way I observed the power of publicity.”
His trial by fire came when he joined the publicity staff of 20th Century Fox in New York. He was the studio’s publicity liaison to “Cleopatra,” just as the media was in a gossip frenzy over the affair between stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He also worked on such classics as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
He then moved to Seven Arts Prods. where he worked with Francis Ford Coppola on his first major movie, “You’re a Big Boy Now.” After Seven Arts bought Warner Bros. in 1967, Ganis served as the studio’s liaison between studio departments and productions such as “All the President’s Men” and “A Star Is Born.”
Coppola introduced him to George Lucas, who hired Ganis to work on the marketing of Lucasfilm’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Return of the Jedi.”
He then joined Paramount, where he stayed for five years, first as president of worldwide marketing and then as prexy of the motion picture group. He joined Sony in 1991, serving as vice chairman of Columbia Pictures and prexy of worldwide marketing for Columbia/TriStar.
In 1996, Ganis formed his own production company, Out of the Blue Entertainment. The shingle has produced comedies “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and “Mr. Deeds,” among other films. He produces projects with wife Nancy Hult, who is developing a biopic of Thomas Paine and was also a producer on “Akeelah.”
He’s mum about this year’s Oscar telecast, but he will, as is tradition, be onstage again. Will it be a cinch? “I wouldn’t go that far,” he says. “But actually we have a couple of nice ideas and, if they work, I will be happy.”