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Turning glimmer to gold

Campaigners work hard to push standout pics to glory

Contrary to many things in American life, the Oscars can’t be bought. But they can be wooed.

The long slog of Academy campaigning approaches its first milestone this week (“Thanksgiving is the new Christmas,” more than one wag has noted), but the publicity engines have been revving since August.

The competition is fierce among studios as they put their prominent pictures forward with dreams of glimmering statuettes and increased box office and ancillary value. But at what point do companies decide which films to back for the gold and how do they strategize for such a victory?

When critic Roger Ebert published a column Sept. 14 titled “Cheadle and Foxx feel the power at Toronto fest,” two Oscar campaigns were launched.

Don Cheadle, star of MGM/UA’s human rights thriller “Hotel Rwanda” and Jamie Foxx, in Universal’s Ray Charles biopic “Ray,” have received rave reviews of the kind that propel pics into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences spotlight and thesps into one of the most heated races: best actor.

But MGM vice chairman-chief operating officer Chris McGurk dates the birth of “Hotel Rwanda’s” Oscar hopes back to when the studio received the rushes from the set in South Africa. “Once we began to see dailies of Don’s performance, we began to feel that we had a contender here,” McGurk says.

It was the Toronto premiere, based on the audience reaction (“tears streaming down everyone’s faces,” McGurk recalls) that confirmed the company’s plans.

That “Hotel Rwanda” won Toronto’s People’s Choice Award didn’t hurt either (kudo has gone to past Oscar celebrants “Life Is Beautiful,” “American Beauty,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

While Universal execs are keeping mum on their strategies for pumping “Ray,” it was hard to miss Foxx pounding the pavement during Toronto. With paparazzi hounds and mainstream journos trailing, Foxx was a one-man campaign machine, working overtime at parties and press events to persuade the public that a former “In Living Color” cast member and WB sitcom star was Oscar material.

U’s taking this underdog theme and running with it: pushing Foxx’s face on TV shows from “The View” to “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to magazines. Check out Entertainment Weekly’s Oct. 22 for-your-consideration cover headline “Everybody Loves Ray: Jamie Foxx Goes for Oscar Gold as Music Legend Ray Charles.”

Another contender, “Finding Neverland,” exhibited an uncanny pedigree, with Miramax Miramax citing the film’s previously Oscar-nominated cast and crew, from Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet to director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”) and producer Richard Gladstein (“The Cider House Rules”).

The buildup began with fall festival premieres at Telluride and Venice, and continued with an aggressive screening campaign in L.A., New York and London in August and September, “for VIPs to get the buzz going,” says Cynthia Swartz, exec VP publicity at Miramax.

One of the top priorities of Oscar campaigners is to get critics, audiences and Acad voters to see the film. “Ray” and “Finding Neverland” may have an edge, having opened in theaters Oct. 29 and Nov. 12, respectively, during Oscar’s primetime campaign period that runs from late October to mid-December. Releases in late December, formerly a haven for Oscar contenders, now run the risk of lagging behind earlier openers during the newly shortened Academy season, say many strategists.

And just what is the early release advantage? The avalanche of launch publicity dovetails with campaigners’ efforts, generating early momentum and front-runner status. “Ray” is all over consumer magazine covers (November’s Ebony and Essence, for example) while U also targets Academy members with screeners, trade ads and ads in industry town newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. In addition, there is a barrage of special Q&A screenings hosted by guilds.

Screening frenzy

Still, an early fall release can pose dilemmas. Marketing efforts must be well considered. For “Sideways” and “Kinsey,” released Oct. 20 and Nov. 12, respectively, Fox Searchlight marketing prexy Nancy Utley says, “Sometimes it’s difficult to make choices about what to emphasize. For example, if you’re doing ads in the papers, the public might want to hear how entertaining the movie is. But for the Academy, you want to push other aspects, like the performances and the four-star reviews.”

Miramax’s Swartz estimates that the company will host some 30 extra screenings for its Oscar pics. Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” starring a buzzed-about Leonardo DiCaprio, won’t hit theaters until Dec. 17. “But the good news,” says Swartz, “is that it’s not going to be done at the last minute; we’re going to be able to screen it mid-November.”

“Hotel Rwanda,” opening Dec. 22, also must build momentum well before release, resulting in much more pre-release promotion than MGM has done in the past.

On Nov. 4 in New York, the National Board of Review held a Q&A screening and Peggy Siegel hosted a high-end media elite showing, with a dinner afterward.

The film’s director Terry George as well as its real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina (the Rwandan played by Cheadle) are crisscrossing the country in support of the movie.

This is another crucial component of a state-of-the-art Academy campaign: talent willing to go the distance. But a race like this year’s, dominated by biopics and stories based on real-life events, offers some additional hooks.

For “Hotel Rwanda,” MGM is seizing on an opportunity to create awareness of a tragedy that was largely overlooked while it unfolded. In press materials, the studio emphasizes the human-rights angle, including a Time cover story from May 1994 that shows a frightened mother and child at a refugee camp with the quote, ” ‘There are no devils left in Hell,’ the missionary said. ‘They are all in Rwanda.’ ”

Wider net

The film will be screened for opinion-makers and scholars in New York, politicos in Washington, and organizations like Amnesty Intl. and the U.N. Commission for Human Rights to help maximize its profile.

Rusesabagina, a hotelier who managed to save 1,200 Tutsi and Hutu refugees from massacre by defiantly sheltering them during the Rwandan genocide, is being chaperoned through six weeks of publicity in the U.S. from November to December. “This is his story and it’s great for people to hear the story directly from him,” says McGurk. “But putting him and his story in the limelight is (also) a good thing from a social standpoint, particularly in light of what’s going on in Sudan.”

Then there’s the biopic of Ray Charles, one of the most beloved entertainers in American music. Though Charles was alive during the making of the movie, and involved since its genesis 15 years ago, his passing in June raised awareness and appreciation to a high level. Inevitably, U’s campaign has benefited from recent celebrations of the artist, from a star-studded benefit concert held at the Beverly Hills Hotel in late September to the late-October CBS broadcast “Genius: A Night for Ray Charles,” hosted by Jamie Foxx,which a Variety reviewer called “an uncomfortable coupling of tribute and movie promo.”

Fact vs. fiction

But the mixing of fact with fiction is not necessarily the ideal recipe for Oscar season, as Miramax’s Swartz points out. “Whenever you have a film that is a biopic, it becomes, ‘They left this out, they didn’t do this’ and the press wants to pick it apart.”

In addition, Oscar hopefuls must contend with voters’ own biases. While Rusesabagina and Charles have few opponents, what about Che Guevara, portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal in the much-touted “Motorcycle Diaries,” or the controversial sexologist portrayed by Liam Neeson in the buzzed-about “Kinsey”?

Miramax is preempting charges of factual inaccuracy in “Finding Neverland” by framing the film as anything but a biopic. “It’s a fictional meditation on the creation of ‘Peter Pan,’ inspired by the real friendship between author J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies boys,” says Swartz. “As we’ve always said upfront, it’s quite fictionalized.”

The publicity team has recruited Barrie family members and “Peter Pan” experts to do interviews while Depp is unavailable for press, shooting “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

For Dec. 27, the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the “Peter Pan” stage play, Miramax plans tie-in events to re-energize the campaign. The date happens to be the same day Academy ballots are sent out.

In another preemptive move, Miramax has enlisted Andrew Birkin, author of biography “J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys,” to speak on behalf of Barrie and squash any suspicions that he may have been a pedophile. In the Nov. 1 issue of Newsweek, for example, an article quotes Birkin: “Barrie was essentially asexual, clearly impotent. He was a lover of children, yes, but not sexually.”

In an echo of the negative politicking that surrounded “A Beautiful Mind” protagonist John Nash, a consortium of right-wing groups is asserting that researcher Alfred Kinsey was not only a pedophile but a Nazi collaborator.

Fox Searchlight’s Utley isn’t worried. “We know that Alfred Kinsey was a controversial figure, and I think the beauty of Bill Condon’s movie is that it doesn’t whitewash him and it doesn’t take sides,” he says.

Utley and other marketers believe smear campaigning is less prevalent today. Plus, an AMPAS rule adopted this year prohibits Oscar campaign material that casts a negative light on opposing pics or even mentions the competition. The regulation joins a familiar laundry list of no-nos, barring everything from telephone lobbying and private receptions to screening invitations that include any sort of promotional claim.

Such rules confound some veteran publicists. “It’s tougher now than ever to campaign a picture, because there are more restrictions,” says Tony Angelotti, a veteran campaigner working with U on “Ray.”

On the other hand, he notes, “there are more groups ready and willing to honor a film, whether it’s the Golden Globes or the Broadcast Film Critics.”

Heading into December and January, campaigns tend to focus on picking up ancillary awards that can build crucial momentum for Oscar. The Golden Globe noms will be announced Dec. 13, while the show is set for broadcast Jan. 16, a day after nomination ballots are due at the Academy. But the Broadcast Film Critics’ Critics Choice Awards will air Jan. 9, in plenty of time to influence fence-sitters.

“All these groups sharpen the focus of who’s a contender and who’s not a contender,” says Utley.

Since they’re not beholden to Academy rules, outfits like the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Globes, and the Broadcast Critics are reputedly more easily swayed via free goodies and champagne receptions with the stars.

But Utley contends that the party circuit has died down. “No one wants to get busted for that, and really, how many votes are you getting at individual soirees?” she asks. “It’s not nearly as many people as you can influence through advertising or a key media break.”

In the end, is there any way to determine whether Academy members respond to such coaxing? “You buy all these ads, you go through all this work, you have people working night after night at Q&As, and you really don’t know what effect you’re having,” says Utley.

“You’d love to think that everyone watches the contenders, and the good work floats to the top. But I’m not sure if that’s true.”

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