Oscar hopefuls launch viral campaigns

Contenders use online tactics to sway voters

If helmer Duncan Jones has his way, Acad voters won’t be able to ignore thesp Sam Rockwell’s performance in “Moon.” He recently launched a petition and Twitter blitz to promote Rockwell — and the film. It’s a grassroots for-your-consideration campaign with no budget but plenty of energized fans.

There’s no doubt that social media platforms (most visibly YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace) influence consumers’ movie choices. This is a pivotal year for these popular sites and applications, as marketers and filmmakers use virtual word of mouth to alter the awards game, which means it’s only a matter of time before an unfiltered off-the-cuff posting lands some industryite in a media maelstrom.

“None of it should be taken lightly,” insists former New Line online guru Gordon Paddison, who now freelances as a film marketing and distribution consultant. All Internet efforts should be elements of a strategic publicity and marketing plan, says Paddison. “A campaign should not only be about the Vanity Fair piece but also about the 140-character piece,” he adds.

Whether or not one believes Acad voters are immune to online chatter, according to Paddison, a contender or marketer’s goal should be to share information without coercing or pandering and “be elegant and responsible while at the same time being strategic.”

The showbiz contingent that follows Twitter, Facebook and MySpace isn’t limited to the youngsters. Ninety-two-year-old thesp Kirk Douglas blogs frequently on his MySpace page to his 10,000-plus friends. (He plugged son Peter’s “Whip It!” in October as a must-see). Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore (with 6 million Twitter followers between them) mentioned doc “We Live in Public,” and 40,000 users accessed the trailer within 24 hours. Tyler Perry e-blasted those on his 40,000-strong email list his very personal reasons for supporting “Precious” in its upcoming theatrical release. And Oscar kudocast co-producer Adam Shankman is tweeting in the run-up to the show.

Social media sites elevate a film or celebrity’s visibility among not just consumers but tastemakers as well. “That’s very valuable,” argues Matt Dentler, head of programming and publicity for Cinetic, who believes industry-driven tweeting has an influence on dialogue and conversation in everyday Hollywood.

“If somebody like a Rainn Wilson, Jon Favreau or Ben Stiller creates more awareness and excitement around a film, maybe that halo effect could make some incremental difference,” he says. (For example, Wilson recently urged his 1.8 million Twitter followers: “If you see one DVD this year, make it ‘The Rocker.’ If you decide on another, make it ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil.'”)

Because of the shrinking number of indie distribs, many filmmakers — notably doc helmers — now take a DIY approach to spreading the word. Ondi Timoner, who produced and directed “We Live in Public,” has been tweeting since the day she got to the Sundance Film Festival.

Timoner contends her film wouldn’t be in theaters without social media. “We don’t have money for ads and no money for real P&A, but what we do have are tech-savvy people who are attracted to the film and are helping put it out in an innovative way,” she says.

Among the innovations: streaming the press screenings live in a password-protected environment; commissioning a widget for the film that updates daily with 15-second clips.

“I don’t know if it will help with awards, but I hope people will notice us without the (publicity) budget of other films,” says Timoner.

More than print or broadcast, online lends itself to a steady flow of information. “A constant drumbeat” is how David Fenkel, a partner at Gotham-based indie distrib Oscilloscope, describes it. Fenkel has made a priority of focusing on online journalists and bloggers who track awards season in the company’s efforts to promote “The Messenger” and Ben Foster’s critically acclaimed perf.

“Blogs and podcasts are helping move the needle and do fuel buzz and conversation, which is critically important,” says Fenkel.

Awards prognosticators such as the Envelope, In Contention and David Poland’s Movie City News are among those who provide a daily horse race via the Internet of which films and perfs have momentum.

The process has taken insider conversations public online, and colleagues are often privy to opinions, solicited or not. For instance, helmer Jason Reitman chronicles the road leading to “Up in the Air’s” release daily via Twitter, providing a rare glimpse into movie marketing. In other cases, publicists are called in to take over updating talent’s Facebook or MySpace pages (as happened in the wake of Dustin Lance Black’s post-Oscar popularity).

Magnolia Pictures honcho Eamonn Bowles finds Twitter just another tool of the trade, one that brought fevered attention to “Food, Inc.’s” release. Twitter is most effective in mobilizing those with a die-hard interest in the subject. However, he questions whether Twitter may be “just pitching it out into the void.”

As Paddison notes, when it comes to Oscars, each vote in every category is hard fought. He adds, “Honestly, in the world of the Academy, it’s still one-to-one, over tweet-to-many.”

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