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Disney nominees felt outgunned

Despite 17 noms, Mouse snagged only one trophy

Disney-owned Miramax has come to be known as a kudos machine, spending generously every year to spin straw into Oscar gold.

Not so, however, for its corporate parent. After snagging an industry-leading 17 noms — including a rare two for best pic — Disney all but disappeared Sunday night.

Disney’s lone trophy went to Phil Collins’ song from “Tarzan.” And best original song isn’t a category requiring a great deal of campaigning.

“The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense” and “The Straight Story” combined for 14 noms, with the first two becoming just the fifth and sixth Disney releases ever to vie for best pic. Disney is the only major studio never to have won a best-film trophy.

Those familiar with the campaigns this year had a ready explanation for the goose egg: a conspicuous lack of support.

Reps of the three Mouse House films refused to publicly play Monday-morning quarterback. But several of the principals involved pointedly voiced their concerns. In short, they felt they were outgunned.

Geoffrey Ammer, the studio’s co-prexy of marketing, conceded Disney didn’t spend as aggressively as some of its rivals. He estimated that Disney spent one-fourth the amount that DreamWorks and Miramax did on trade ads. But, he stressed, that was also the case prior to the noms, and the studio got good results.

However, those results did not carry over past the nomination announcement.

Ammer concluded, “Nominations and the actual awards are based on the merit of the movies and not the financial backing of Academy campaigns.”

Yet in not mounting an all-out campaign blitz, the studio risks short-circuiting its talent relationships.

“Like everything else in our economy, this is about advertising and marketing,” said one insider linked to a Disney nominee. “People are looking at DreamWorks and some of the others and saying, ‘Now that’s a campaign.’ ”

Each of Disney’s hopefuls — leaving aside “Bicentennial Man,” up for best makeup, and “Toy Story 2,” which competed with “Tarzan” for best song — certainly had marketable attributes.

  • While “The Insider” has always been commercially challenged (grossing just $29 million by Oscar night), it was one of the best-reviewed pics of 1999.

    Former studio topper Joe Roth championed the film, weathering both counter-attacks from Big Tobacco and the reported frowns of CEO Michael Eisner.

    One observer noted that “Insider” normally would be a candidate for platforming, a gradual release pattern employed by last year’s best-pic winner, “Shakespeare in Love” (as well as films like this year’s eventual victor, “American Beauty”).

    Instead, “Insider” opened fairly wide, on about 1,800 screens. When it grossed a disappointing $6.7 million in its early November opening, it was marked for a quick commercial death.

    Disney execs have maintained that a slow rollout wasn’t in the cards, given the muscle of Thanksgiving openers such as MGM’s “The World Is Not Enough” and Disney’s “Toy Story 2.”

  • Occupying the other end of the commercial spectrum, “The Sixth Sense” had a built-in advantage: Most voters had seen it. With a domestic cume of $290.3 million, the M. Night Shyamalan pic starring Bruce Willis is now the No. 10 grosser in history. As fate would have it, the film supplanted “The Empire Strikes Back” in the 10 spot on Sunday night — the evening of the Oscarcast.

    With B.O. leverage rivaling that of best pic winners “Titanic” and “Forrest Gump,” the supernatural thriller’s main handicaps were perceived to be its status as a genre picture and the momentum for “American Beauty.”

    But with clear appeal to the down-the-middle tastes of the Acad, there’s no telling what an aggressive campaign could have achieved.

  • The darkest horse of the three may have been “The Straight Story,” a G-rated pic from one of the most unlikely helmers ever to work for Disney, David Lynch. Still, even though best actor nominee Richard Farnsworth judged it to be his last trip to the nominee circle, the campaign for him repped a small percentage of the overall campaign budget.

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