Sooner or later, every studio is faced with an awards-season Sophie’s Choice: Which of your children do you love best?
This year, New Line has a trio of best-actor possibilities: Kevin Kline (“Life as a House”), Ian McKellen (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Sean Penn (“I Am Sam”).
In that same race, Warner Bros. has Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Jim Carrey for “The Majestic.”
And Miramax has an embarrassment of riches contending for best actress: Judi Dench (“Iris”), Nicole Kidman (“The Others”), Julianne Moore (“The Shipping News”), Meg Ryan (“Kate and Leopold”), Sissy Spacek (“In the Bedroom”), Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) and Renee Zellweger (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”).
Sometimes fate helps studios avoid this dilemma — they throw all their awards attention behind only one or two films, because they don’t have any other serious contenders.
But when a studio has a lot of possibilities and limited funds for promotion, it may have to decide who gets the most attention.
As with all parents, the answer is: I love all my children the same.
Miramax prez of marketing David Brooks says you can’t play favorites: “You have to focus on each movie and give it the best possible push. The crux” of any campaign, he emphasizes, “is getting people to see these movies and these performances.”
Sometimes the flurry of awards shows and critics’ kudos in December and January can steer the studio in a certain direction.
“Of course, we’re going to come out of the gate with all guns blazing,” says New Line marketing topper Russell Schwartz. “As the nomination process starts to unfold (with other kudocasts and critics groups), certain actors will rise to the top. There are a lot of indicators that help us.”
Another indicator is the indefinable buzz, which has proven to be wildly unpredictable. Though “Chocolat” and “The Green Mile,” for example, were hardly leading the pack on critics’ lists, studios capitalized on audience enthusiasm, and both pics ended up doing well with Oscar. On the opposite extreme, studios often put out early word on some high-profile pics, then quickly pull back when it’s clear they will never catch fire.
Another factor, not surprisingly, is box office. Sure, a blurb like “Oscar winner for best supporting actor!” can enhance a video box. But if it comes down to deciding between a film that opened last March and one that bowed in December, studios know that the latter will benefit more, financially, from Oscar boosts.
Studios must weigh other considerations, such as an actor’s availability (sometimes they’re in a play or doing an film, and can’t do the talkshow/party circuit); and longterm hopes (studios want to be in business for years with a star who holds the promise of future box office gold, rather than someone whose success may seem a fluke.)
And finally, when loving your children, you have to contend with sibling rivalry. Many Oscar campaigners tell tales of producers calling and demanding why a rival film is getting a much heavier push than theirs. So you smile and give his or her film an extra push.
Is there any downside to having so many contenders in one year? No, says one Oscar consultant. “The studio has a wealth of opportunities here. There’s no downside for anybody except me. I’m working my ass off.”