Stars running Oscar marathon

Contenders make the rounds promoting films

As the holidays approach, they mean one thing to a lot of exhausted actors and filmmakers: A chance to rest after Phase One of a grueling awards campaign.

Film folk have been bouncing around from coast to coast (and, in some cases, across the Atlantic) on a grand-scale dog-and-pony show, meeting kudos voters at parties and an endless round of Q&A sessions.

With ballots going out to AMPAS members Dec. 26 and Oscar noms being announced Jan. 22, Phase Two of the meet-and-greets will begin. But to land those nominations, the past two months have been crucial as celebs bang the drums for their films. Press junkets, media interviews and chatshows are used to sell tickets; the Q&A circuit is about getting the word out to awards voters that they must see this film before a ballot is filled out.

The Q&A sessions have been around for at least a decade, but studios this year have made them a much larger component of campaigns, on the assumption that in-person contact will help pics and talent win award attention — and because they’re a relatively cheap way to promote the pic.

It’s not uncommon for one film to chalk up 25-35 sessions in a brief year-end period.

Helmer Ed Zwick is among the many Hollywood names who has been doing the rounds for months. He’s been touting Paramount Vantage’s “Defiance,” from guild Q&As to an industry party at Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills. “It’s very difficult to turn from an artist into a salesman,” he says. “It’s so American to want to have everything in competition, even artists in competition with each other.”

Emma Thompson did the circuit for Overture’s “Last Chance Harvey” with Dustin Hoffman. “We work to entertain and inform our fellow human beings,” she tells Variety. “We don’t want to get prizes all the time, it’s not the bloody point. I don’t have anything against it. It was the most extraordinary experience of my professional life. But I don’t think this circus, which requires you to promote yourself, is good for people or for their creative ability.”

On ABC’s talker “The View,” Meryl Streep said, “I hate the whole campaigning thing now for awards. I find it just unseemly. These campaigns are launched, like a political campaign. You run for this award. It should be that you’re honored with an award, not that your campaign was that much better or well-financed.”

Like it or not, Streep, Thompson and Zwick took part, as did virtually every other major star and filmmaker this season. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Ron Howard, David Fincher, Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry have all done Q&As, while Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan have been feted at “in honor of” receptions.

Mickey Rourke of “The Wrestler” has been ubiquitous and even celebs once critical of Hollywood’s awards system, like Woody Allen, have dropped their resistance and joined the circuit in recent years.

One of the few holdouts this season is Sean Penn, who was active in the Q&A rounds last year with “Into the Wild,” which he directed but which ended up with only a few Oscar noms.

The “Wild” results raise the question whether these Q&As pay off. The answer: There’s conflicting evidence, but studios work on the theory that they must try every avenue available.

A few years ago, Adrien Brody of 2002’s “The Pianist” was everywhere on the party/Q&A circuit — and he won the Oscar. But the film’s director Roman Polanski also won the Oscar and he was, understandably, nowhere to be seen on the U.S. campaign trail.

Many think Miramax’s aggressive campaign that year for Martin Scorsese and “Gangs of New York” backfired, with the helmer winding up as an also-ran. He won as director for the 2006 “The Departed,” when he did no in-person campaigning. But in each of those years, were Academy members influenced by his crusades (or lack thereof), or simply vote for the work?

Despite a lack of hard evidence, studio strategists and personal publicists have embraced Q&As, which give them the chance to prove that they believe in the film.

But the enthusiasm, and the filmmakers’ limited window of availability, often leads to overbooking.

Winslet, Daldry, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and producer Donna Gigliotti had to leave the New York premiere of “The Reader” early to attend a Q&A. Producer Lauren Shuler Donner and director Gina Prince-Bythewood bowed out in the middle of a “Secret Life of Bees” Q&A at the Arclight in Hollywood, because they had to attend another Q&A at a different theater in the multiplex.

On Nov. 20, Jackman started his day at 9 a.m., at the press junket for “Australia,” followed by tapings of “Tonight” and “Jimmy Kimmel,” then two Q&As in the evening, with the second one kicking off at 11 p.m.

With a Q&A, the traditional format is for a moderator to quiz the person for about 15 minutes after the screening, followed by 15 minutes of questions from the audience.

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker says, “One-on-one interactivity seems to enhance the experience, especially this year when a lot of the movies have complex content.”

The conventional wisdom now is that in the clutter of awards season, nothing quite beats the personal touch, especially when it is someone who you never expected would turn out for the circuit’s rituals. “People have been aggressively doing Q&As for several years,” says awards consultant Flo Grace. “It always helps when people interact. As much as you can bring to the forefront to pique interest in a movie, the better.”

Barker says Q&As enhance a screening, educate the audience and are fun for talent. “I’ve never had a filmmaker complain about Q&As,” he states. “They like them better than doing press, when there too many interviewers asking the same questions.”

However, there have been awkward moments. At a “Benjamin Button” party at the home of producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, Pitt was cornered by a Russian blonde who wanted to tell him why she had problems with the movie, and at a Q&A an audience member strayed from the topic to ask about his relationship with his children. (Similarly, after “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard was queried about his work as a child actor.)

Most celebs are professional enough to tolerate the process, and some even seem to appreciate it. At a “Seven Pounds” screening for the SAG nominating committee members, the moderator tried to wrap things up after a half-hour. But Smith looked at the sea of raised hands in the audience and said, “No, we can stay. They have questions!”

Despite appearing six nights a week in “The Seagull” on Broadway, Kristin Scott Thomas devoted every Monday to interviews and Q&As for Sony Classics’ French-language film “I’ve Loved You So Long.” Stacking two or three appearances a night is not uncommon, and companies like SPC videotape the sessions for eventual use as DVD extras.

Even the usually reclusive Fincher has submitted to numerous Q&As, from the Telluride Film Fest in September to guild screenings. “Hollywood has its own subsets of celebrities, including directors. For some SAG member to listen to David Fincher is a big thrill,” says marketing consultant Terry Press.

Barker credits audience Q&As at film fests with starting the practice. And the Weinsteins and Miramax would schedule occasional events in the 1990s, such as Pablo Neruda poetry readings by celebs to tout “Il Postino,” or meet-and-greet sessions with Billy Bob Thornton for “Sling Blade.”

But the Q&A process shifted into high gear when DreamWorks threw an Academy party to celebrate the DVD release of “The Gladiator,” complete with a Q&A with Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, who also turned up at another screening of the film. Their presence created an unexpected buzz, and the movie won the best picture Oscar.

Since then, the Q&As have spread out to the public forums as well, as a way to boost word of mouth for films that need an audience build (“Che” and “The Reader”) and for films that don’t (Catherine Hardwicke answering questions from a group of teenage girls on “Twilight”).

Now stars and filmmakers will be keeping their fingers crossed for the nomination announcement — and for the energy to survive Phase Two.

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