HOLLYWOOD, CA: This year's Academy Awards campaigning season in Hollywood has been dubbed the most competitive "in recent memoryby a slew of media and publicity insiders.
Still, after months of mudslinging, Hollywood's promotions elite is undecided on the merits of attacking competitors' projects. Most, however, are certain the tactic is here to stay, with 2002 cementing the role of negative campaigns in the arsenal of acceptable PR practices - as long as you don't get caught.
While Universal/DreamWorks' A Beautiful Mind took top honors in both the film and direction categories at last Sunday's Oscars, the road to the podium was ugly.
The movie found itself at the center of a whirlwind of negative publicity after an item surfaced in early March (the day Oscar ballots were sent out) on the Drudge Report claiming John Nash - the schizophrenic mathematician on whom the film is based - was an anti-Semite, an issue not raised in the film. Later reporting questioned his sexual orientation, other aspects of his personal life, and the veracity of filmmaker Ron Howard's work - topics that made it in outlets ranging from Variety to 60 Minutes.
The smears continued when reports surfaced that Miramax - campaigning for its Oscar contender In The Bedroom - had planted the Nash stories.
The studio strongly denied the allegations, but still received its own swathe of negative coverage.
By then the campaign methods had sunk to silly or sublime, depending on whom you ask. Miramax's publicity team wrote a letter defending its practices to the Los Angeles Times in which the first letter of each paragraph acrostically spelled out DREAMWORKS - an apparent jab at the studio behind A Beautiful Mind and Shrek.
By the end of the season, most studios with an Oscar contender had publicly denied waging whispering campaigns, but off the record, most were certain somebody in the business was.
However, publicity veterans said all the maneuvering barely affected the Oscars' outcome.
For Universal - which bore the brunt of the attacks - the negative attention was long expected, since early on filmmakers decided not to strictly adhere to the details of Nash's life.
The studio hired crisis expert Sitrick & Co. last spring, before the film was finished, to plan a strategy for the possible issues it could raise, according to Sitrick senior partner and head of the entertainment practice Allan Mayer.
"They knew it would raise eyebrows, if not controversy,
But some say the negative coverage helped the movie.
"The film benefited greatly from a consumer perspective,
said one veteran publicity pro, pointing out that the Nash story was covered not only by entertainment press, but also by political and hard news reporters. And while Mayer said that a 60 Minutes interview with John and Alicia Nash was scheduled before the anti-Semitism issued emerged, there is little doubt viewers tuned in to hear how Nash would respond to those charges.
Other allegations were fielded by a variety of experts and third parties Mayer and Universal had pre-arranged. Many of the critiques were answered with explanations that seemed to satisfy audiences (the anti-Semite remarks were made when Nash was suffering from delusions) and helped defuse other scandals for which explanations were not as favorable - such as questions about Nash's illegitimate child.
"If there was a campaign against it, it overreached itself and backfired,
Some people pointed to Russell Crowe, who seemed to wage a negative campaign against himself, as proof that flaw-based marketing can have an effect.
Crowe earned a slew of bad publicity midway through statue season when he attacked the producer of England's BAFTA awards after his acceptance speech was cut short.
While he later apologized, industry insiders say that event tarnished his image and turned off Academy voters - keeping him from taking home an Oscar despite the film's other kudos. Instead, the Best Actor award went to Denzel Washington (Training Day), who has a totally positive reputation.
"Russell Crowe was flying into strong headwinds,
said one LA publicist.
"He's an enormously talented ass, but an ass."
Effective or not, not everyone took the low road. Facing an uphill battle for its fantasy flick Lord of the Rings (the Academy traditionally shuns this genre), New Line waged a clean campaign that earned it four Oscars outside the major categories.
"We made a conscious effort to stay out of it,
says New Line publicity topper Christina Kounelias of the negative marketing. "I think it potentially backfires."
But most agree that "the tiger has been unleashed,
as one PR pro stated.
"There is no question Oscar campaigns have gotten incredibly vicious," added Mayer. "It's gotten this bad, and will probably get worse."
HAIL TO HALLE
Halle Berry's Oscar will be jostling for space with the other honors she's received since becoming the first black woman to win the Best Actress award last week for her steamy turn in Monster's Ball.
Quick to jump on PR opportunities, more than one company has sent out press releases adding to Berry's accolades.
Pro-Cuts announced last Monday that the diva had been named "best tressed
by a panel of "star stylists
from their chain of coif shops.
While in a release titled "Halle Berry Wins More Than Best Actress," Crest White Strips announced she had also been chosen as the owner of "America's sexiest smile.
And don't forget Revlon, which is sure to capitalize on the Oscar queen who is featured in its advertisements.
The makeup giant showed its faith in Berry with a pre-Oscar bash at Mirabella Restaurant in LA last Saturday night.