Studios cutting back on Oscar campaign ads

Here’s a news flash: It’s kudo time. In three weeks, Globes ballots will be cast and critics will start unveiling their choices. The Globes dinner itself has been moved up to Jan. 11, less than two months away.

That means the Oscar race is on, right? The campaigns are amping up and speculation is rising.

Not quite. Oscar ’08 may go down as the year of the Great Non-Race.

OK, I’m exaggerating. There has been a sprinkling of Oscar ads here and there, and by mid-November three screeners had arrived in my office.

But that compares with some 24 screeners by the same time last year. In ’07, however, some 73 movies were considered possible Oscar and Globes contenders compared with a paltry 35 this year.

Already in release last year at this time were “No Country for Old Men,” “Into the Wild,” “Lust, Caution,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “Lars and the Real Girl” and “The Assassination of Jesse James.”

All this reminds me of the ’60s song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” In this case, it’s “Where Have All the Movies Gone?”

So here’s the quick answer: The congloms that own the studios are sending forth cries of poverty. GE’s hurting, folks, and Sony’s having a tough time. Hankies, please.

If the studios were stand-alone movie companies, as during the last depression in the ’30s, they’d arguably be in better shape than they are now. Today, however, they’re just humble corporate subsidiaries and, as such, yummy targets for the bean counters.

The bottom line: Spending on Oscar and Globes ads is down roughly 50% in one year. That’s an astonishing drop.

And what it boils down to is this question: Are the studios hanging the talent out to dry? Films like “Milk,” “Doubt” or “Frost/Nixon,” to name a few, need award nominations to find a mainstream audience. They can’t just rely on critics’ raves because most critics have been laid off, too.

I realize my observations on this topic are viewed with suspicion by the corporate suits. The cutdown in kudo ads hits Variety where it hurts, they’ll say.

That’s true, of course, but my job is to run news coverage, not sell ads, and the demise of Oscar campaigning happens to be news.

There are also those who argue that you don’t need ads to win a nomination. You don’t need ads to sell toothpaste, either, but what does that prove?

Given the giant cluster of December openings this year, studio marketers are understandably scared they’ll get lost in the melee, and the top stars and filmmakers share their panic.

Harvey Weinstein basically invented Oscar campaigning a generation ago and proved its enormous profitability — witness the ultimate success of movies like “Shakespeare in Love,” a $30 million film that grossed $300 million worldwide, prompted by its Oscar.

This year, Harvey is pushing “The Reader,” which opens Dec. 10 — a film he believes has high Oscar potential.

“If you don’t pay for that big upfront Oscar campaign, you end up paying at the box office,” he insists.

It remains to be seen who takes his sage advice.

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