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Oscar Campaign Spending Reaches New Heights in Competitive Season

The escalating cost of awards campaigning may reach an all-time high this season as heavyweights such as “Roma” and “A Star Is Born” battle for Oscar gold.

The quest for an Academy Award has always been expensive, but Netflix’s hunger to nab its first best picture win, coupled with the presence of legitimate studio contenders like Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Universal’s “Green Book,” is leading to sticker shock.

Oscar campaign budgets for films seeking nominations in multiple categories, such as “A Star Is Born,” “Roma” and “First Man,” can run from $20 million to $30 million as companies compete with each other to out-wine and dine awards voters, according to insiders at the various studios and streamers. One source said the campaign for “A Star Is Born” came in at slightly lower than $20 million, in a studio effort to spend more strategically than in past years (as with the $25 million it spent on “Argo,” or the $20 million for “Gravity,” the insider said). 

The current cycle has few precedents, many sources noted. Hardly a day goes by without awards voters receiving glossy booklets about the making of this or that prestige film or an invitation to see A-listers tell stories from the set over lunch at such posh eateries as the Russian Tea Room or Monkey Bar.  A “wide-open Oscar race,” in the words of one consultant, has become even more unpredictable following a Golden Globes night that was full of upsets. For instance, “Green Book” triumphed in the best comedy category over “Vice,” while the heavily favored “A Star Is Born” fell to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the drama field.

That’s left studios pumping even more money into the race because they believe they have an outside chance at scoring an upset win on Oscar night.

The entry of streaming services looking to make a statement, as well as a few well-heeled indie players, is further fueling spending. As a sign of its grand Oscar ambitions, Netflix acquired an entire awards-focused press agency led by Lisa Taback in July. A veteran of campaigns for the likes of “The Artist” and “Lady Bird,” Taback has been tasked with helping the tech giant navigate the vagaries of Oscar season. Not to be outdone, Amazon Studios has wallpapered Los Angeles with Timothée Chalamet’s tortured face in the hopes of landing him an acting Oscar for his work in the addiction drama “Beautiful Boy.” And Fox Searchlight, armed with the critically beloved “The Favourite,” is hoping to convert those rave reviews into a few golden statuettes. A victory would come in handy as the indie label tries to prove its value to its new owners at Disney.

“More money is flying around than I have ever seen,” said one veteran distribution executive.

Netflix has left many rivals in the dust with “Roma.” Several sources estimate that the film, a modestly budgeted black-and-white drama that is entirely in Spanish, has spent at least $25 million in its pursuit of an Oscar. As part of that effort, the streaming giant produced a pop-up photography exhibit built around director Alfonso Cuarón’s meticulously designed vision of life in Mexico City, and erected a daylong showcase of its costumes and sets at Hollywood’s Raleigh Studios. Before the holiday break in December, the “Roma” campaign sent Academy voters overstuffed pillows emblazoned with the film’s title, preceded by a 200-plus-page coffee table book of stills. That’s to say nothing of the multiple tastemaker screenings that Netflix has hosted, along with a splashy U.S. premiere celebration at the swanky Chateau Marmont.

In support of its film “Dumplin,’” Netflix rented out the ballroom of the Four Seasons Los Angeles and provided voters a catered lunch, along with a four-minute performance by Dolly Parton of her best original song hopeful, “Girl in the Movies,” from the picture’s soundtrack. The company followed it up by mailing pink plastic guitar Christmas ornaments on behalf of Parton.

Netflix declined to comment on its awards campaign budgets.

The streamer is hardly alone in writing big checks for Oscars. In November, Shinola notebooks stamped with the lyrics to “Shallow” in Lady Gaga’s handwriting were sent to voters in a presentation box with a DVD screener of “A Star Is Born.” The notebook was followed by a double-disc soundtrack on vinyl featuring posters of Cooper and Gaga gazing lovingly at each other, as well as vintage-style rocker T-shirts.

Universal Pictures took the “Roma” route, shipping to voters an equally meticulous coffee table book about “First Man” and a collector’s edition of the original score. Director Damien Chazelle and his stars, Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, sat for a spree of events, including a screening and luxe luncheon at Gordon Ramsay’s Boxwood Cafe at The London West Hollywood. The studio presented a “sound show” on the lot to demonstrate how the filmmakers gave voice to the force of gravity.

Some of these costs are accounted for before a single frame of film is even shot. Movie studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal budget in a major awards push at the development stage of movies that seem to have what it takes to go the distance. They typically incorporate those huge campaign sums into their overall marketing, say awards experts.

For prestige films at smaller labels like Focus Features (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Fox Searchlight (“The Favourite”), awards campaign costs generally run from $5 million to $10 million. Representatives from those companies declined to comment.

“If you’ve got a film with three actors campaigning, like ‘The Favourite,’ that’s going to add up quick,” one consultant said. “It’s cheaper if you’re an A24 who is only pursuing something for Ethan Hawke.”

To hype Hawke’s work in “First Reformed,” A24 plied voters with a bottle of whiskey and Pepto Bismol, a nod to his character’s gag-inducing favorite cocktail. As a cheeky plug for “Vice,” Annapurna sent digital heart rate monitors in an allusion to Dick Cheney’s damaged ticker. Not to be outdone, Searchlight plugged “The Favourite” by deploying actors in waistcoats and powdered wigs to greet awards bloggers on both sides of the Continent. They came carrying giant cakes adorned with a line from the film — “How goes the kingdom?” — written in white frosting.

Perks for star talent — like dressing, grooming, extended-stay luxury housing or hybrid rental cars for the eco-friendly leading man or woman — are standard when budgeting a studio film. But when a completed movie enters the awards game, the costs can ratchet up.

“If you’re a small company, you’re going to rent a car, put people up in a hotel you use for junkets and have corporate deals with [and] fly them in on business class,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of awards mainstay Sony Pictures Classics. “It’s a moderate expense. But that expense can go through the roof if you’re dealing with a star that’s not used to the independent budgets.”

One actress in the supporting category requires personal styling for every look she sports on the campaign trail, including an outfit to wear to the airport, said a source inside the campaign. Of course, all that expense might be worth it if she’s photographed holding an Oscar as she enters the terminal come February.  

Brent Lang contributed to this report.

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