Standout performances can overcome bad biz

“The Oscars are literally where art meets commerce,” says Peter Adee, prexy of worldwide marketing at Overture Films.

So it seems only logical that box office grosses and Academy Awards consideration might have some effect on each other, if only a tidal pull emanating from their inevitable proximity. And yet this simple premise is roundly rejected by the marketing professionals behind some of this year’s Oscar talent pushes.

“I think what we consider Oscar movies have to be made for passion — for an idea you have fallen in love with, rather than a cynical commercial enterprise,” says Adee, pointing specifically to his company’s “The Visitor,” with a star turn by longtime character actor Richard Jenkins.

David Dinerstein, president of worldwide marketing and distribution at Lakeshore — currently mounting campaigns for Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley in “Elegy” — acknowledges that the specialty divisions of the major studios were created to compete for Oscars, but he cites “Junebug,” “Half-Nelson” and “Hustle and Flow” as small, performance-driven films that were discovered during the screener process, long after box office (or lack thereof) would have sealed the films’ fates.

This is reiterated by Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films, which is pushing Benicio Del Toro for Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour “Che,” the largest-budget film his company has ever been associated with.

“Look at a movie like ‘Junebug’: Amy Adams was a best supporting actress nominee, and that movie did nothing at the box office,” he says. “I don’t think the industry is that cynical, that if a movie doesn’t perform, that (recognition of the) person’s performance isn’t warranted. There are prestige films and commercial films. They’re different.”

But for every “Monster” or “Sherrybaby,” where glistening performances emerge from the chrysalis of an unseen film, there are pics such as last year’s “Things We Lost in the Fire,” where early buzz evaporates once the film fails to find an audience, or “Body of Lies,” where at one point Leonardo DiCaprio seemed in danger of having to compete with himself in “Revolutionary Road” for lead actor — a concern that now feels far less likely given the former film’s underperformance in the marketplace.

“I would say that if a film comes out that has buzz and doesn’t do well, it’s definitely damaging to the campaign,” says Chad Hartigan, a box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. “In the actors and actresses categories, you can be in a film that didn’t really connect and still get nominations — say, Tommy Lee Jones last year for ‘In the Valley of Elah’. Critics didn’t really like it, or ‘La Vie en rose’, which Marion Cotillard ended up winning. That didn’t get good reviews, and people didn’t really seek it out because it was foreign, and it didn’t make a lot of money.

“Performances are less hinged on box office success than the best picture or best director awards.”

Hartigan also argues that the opposite is sometimes true — films are rewarded at Oscar time for outsized popularity with audiences.

“I don’t think anybody would tell you that if ‘The Sixth Sense’ had come out and made $30 million and performed like an average thriller, that it would have been nominated for either best picture and best director,” he says. “When a film like that comes along, even ‘The Dark Knight’ this year, and it becomes more of a phenomenon than just a simple hit, then the Academy feels like they have to reward it.”

He sees that actors who can bring more of a personal story to a film, rather than just a character, can give the Academy a compelling reason to justify a nomination.

“Look at Mickey Rourke this year,” says Hartigan. “He put in a good performance in ‘The Wrestler,’ but it’s more the fact that he’s playing a character similar to himself — the comeback or feel-good factor. Or it’s Peter O’Toole putting in a good performance, and we really want Peter O’Toole to win an Oscar before he’s done. Or it’s that Diablo Cody used to be a stripper. There are lots of different stories that shape the Oscars.”

Even the accepted wisdom that an Oscar win can add significantly to a film’s ultimate bottom line — often by as much as 50% or more — appears to be trending downward. Whatever gains are made are increasingly offset by the rising costs of mounting a credible Oscar campaign, whether it’s for an acting performance or the film itself.

“A film like ‘Michael Clayton,’ which had been out for a while, had made $40┬ámillion before the nominations came out,” Hartigan notes. “Then it got a lot of nominations, including best picture as well as a supporting actress award for Tilda Swinton. Because it hadn’t made very much money, there was room for it to grow, and Warner Bros. put it back out in over a thousand theaters. Yet it only added another $8 million or $9┬ámillion.”

Dinerstein estimates that the pricetag on a high-end Oscar campaign can reach as high as $15 million (a ballpark figure confirmed by others), although figures are deceptive, as such costs are often rolled into the film’s general marketing budget (i.e., ad buys that emphasize a film’s Oscar prospects).

For a film like “Elegy,” which grossed $3.5 domestically, even a bare-bones campaign can prove daunting.

Such expenditures can include newspaper and online advertising, screenings, hosting parties, sending out screeners — which in the case of the SAG Awards, can go out to all voting members — and the odd gimmick, which last year included delivering milkshakes to Academy members’ doors to commemorate the penultimate scene of “There Will Be Blood.”

“Launching an Oscar campaign is not dramatically different from launching a political campaign,” Dinerstein observes. “You have to have not only a strategic plan, but you have to execute it perfectly.”

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