The first Oscar consultant

Carr's marketing on 'Deer Hunter' rewrote awards game

This article is excerpted from “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Variety senior editor Robert Hofler, to be published in March by Da Capo Press. Copyright 2010.

If he wasn’t the very first Oscar consultant, Allan Carr certainly ranks as the most successful, not to mention colorful, flamboyant and unlikely. His campaign to turn “The Deer Hunter” from a potential B.O. dud to Oscar winner remains the tried-and-true template.

Back in 1978, the openly gay, caftan-wearing Carr celebrated the huge grosses for his new movie “Grease” by opening a Studio 54-style disco in the basement of his Beverly Hills manse Hilhaven Lodge (now owned by Brett Ratner). Meanwhile, across the Hollywood Hills at Universal Pictures, studio chiefs Lew Wasserman, Sid Sheinberg and Thom Mount found themselves in deep trouble. They’d recently flown to Detroit for a preview of “The Deer Hunter,” Michael Cimino’s somber portrait of Vietnam War vets. The Motor City screening did not go well.

“The worst preview I’d ever seen,” says Mount, then president of Universal. “‘The Deer Hunter’ died.”

The film’s producer, Barry Spikings, held a postmortem with U’s top brass, and together they tried to shorten the film’s three-hour running time. Ultimately, “We realized we’d cut the heart out of it,” says Spikings. “We put it back together. But Universal was nervous how to market it.”

Spikings can’t recall why Carr was indebted to him back in 1978, but he did owe him for something. In addition to producing “Grease,” Carr had masterminded the successful marketing of “Tommy” three years earlier.

“Allan was in his cabana at the far end of his pool, dressed in a very relaxed fashion, drinking champagne,” Spikings recalls. From his plush throne of white pillows, Carr extended a bejeweled hand.

“I’ve come to call in a favor,” said Spikings, who then pitched his hard-hitting film. The preview hadn’t gone well, he admitted: “We need someone to market the film, someone like you, Allan.”

Carr liked having his ego stroked as he drank champagne. “You want me to sell a long movie about poor people who go to war and get killed? No thank you,” he said, and promptly finished off the Cristal.

“I’ve got a car waiting,” said Spikings, who somehow got Carr into a limo that sped him away to Universal where a screening room had been reserved.

The next day, Carr sat in Sheinberg’s office, telling the CEO, “This is an important movie, and I want to run the marketing campaign. I know exactly how to sell this incredible movie.” Carr’s first edict to the U brass: “The way to get this film the Academy Award attention it deserves is to play it on the Z Channel.”

The concept was not only revolutionary. In 1978, it was considered box office suicide to release a movie on cable (and later, against Acad rules). But Carr didn’t care about the negligible cut in ticket sales from the tiny Z Channel viewership. He wanted to give the film a patina of prestige. Only three years old, the Z Channel showed an eclectic lineup of foreign-language and indie films, and often showcased them with letter-box and rare director cuts long before those terms were well-known.

“We will cultivate the right audience,” Carr said. “?’The Deer Hunter’ is an Oscar winner!”

It baffled him why U would preview such a quality film in Detroit. In his opinion, a more agreeable environment would have been New York’s Little Carnegie Cinema, where the auds were “edgy and sophisticated.” Carr also insisted that the film open in only two theaters — one in New York, the other in L.A. — for a mere two weeks at year’s end. Then rerelease it wide after the Oscar noms were announced.

“It’s a common pattern today. But it was unheard of in 1978,” says Mount. “Allan’s campaign for ‘The Deer Hunter’ was the beginning of Oscar consultants. Now everybody does it.”

Mount wasn’t the only one who considered Carr a marketing genius. “I saved ‘The Deer Hunter,’?” Carr said. “Universal would have buried it in Iowa last fall if I hadn’t seen it and hollered that this is a masterpiece and then fought for it.”

Cimino’s pic won five Oscars, including best picture, and it turned Carr into a marketing legend. Not that it was a hat he cared to wear again for any old film. A movie exec once made the mistake of approaching him at Le Dome to ask a favor: “Would you market this new film?”

Carr had already been to an early screening of the comedy, and finding it not funny, he wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t whisper back his reply. He shouted his nay vote so that everyone in the restaurant could hear: “?’Ishtar’ is ‘rat shit’ spelled backwards!”

One of Carr’s follow-up forays into Oscar land did not end so felicitously. In 1989, he produced the Oscar telecast, and his decision to have an atonal Rob Lowe serenade an unknown actress in Snow White drag engendered a Disney lawsuit for copyright infringement, as well as very public complaints from Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and other movie stalwarts. Carr never produced again. He died in 1999 at the age of 62.