The movie-going public would like to think that members of the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences dissect the merits of each and
every film and performance presented to them for Oscar consideration.
But as with other products, movies and stars are sold by a marketing and
PR machine that kicks into overdrive this time of year.
In the weeks leading up to this year's awards show, the big news wasn't
so much the films, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the stars,
such as Julia Roberts of Erin Brockovich, it was the aggressive efforts
studios make to get their films considered. The Los Angeles Times, The
Wall Street Journal, Inside, Entertainment Weekly and others did stories
that focused on the studios and their lobbying efforts.
Getting films nominated for an Academy Award is PR at its finest - and
often at its most extreme. An Oscar win is a career-changing
Nearly everyone in film dreams of being on stage at the Dorothy Chandler
Pavilion holding that statuette.
'There's nothing in Hollywood that gives you the credibility of winning
an Oscar,' says Jeannette Walls, MSNBC.com celebrity reporter and the
author of Dish, a book on Hollywood gossip. 'It can take you from being
a movie star to being an acclaimed actor. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
became immediate 'A-list' stars as a result of Good Will Hunting. It
turned them into major powerhouses.'
That's why many film stars now have provisions in their contracts
requiring studios to spend millions of dollars on their behalf for Oscar
marketing campaigns. The result is a plethora of 'for your
consideration' ads in Variety and Hollywood Reporter, and a lot of
behind-the-scenes work by publicists. The publicists make sure
directors, producers, studio executives and stars are seen and heard in
the press during the periods when Academy members are selecting nominees
Oscar lobbying takes many forms. The expense and pomp surrounding
submissions to Academy members escalated in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1993, Columbia Pictures sent out tapes of its releases to Academy
members in very expensive, large lacquer boxes. Other studios followed
suit the next year with equally extravagant packaging, prompting the
Academy to issue guidelines. The Academy also placed limits on film
events and telephone campaigns.
In many ways, the restrictions have been a boon for journalists, as
studios rely more heavily on reaching Academy members through the trade
and mainstream press. Normally inaccessible stars suddenly show up on TV
programs and give more interviews. 'Journalists love it, because they
have egos too,' notes Walls. 'All of a sudden, you're able to talk to
Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, and Harvey Weinstein stops you to say
Publicists begin building buzz about a film, director or star late in
the calendar year and continue until late March. But in reality, most
studios have begun efforts for their best chances well before that. 'A
lot of the groundwork begins on the first day of filming,' says one
source, who wished to remain anonymous. 'It's all very subversive.'
The most visible part of an Oscar campaign is the 'for your
consideration' ads that appear in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter,
but studios also count on full-page ads in more mainstream publications.
Miramax spent dollars 1.8 million on ads for Chocolat in The New York
Times and Los Angeles Times during this year's nomination period,
topping the dollars 1.5 million spent for Erin Brockovich and the
dollars 661,000 for Gladiator.
And the winner is ...
That raises the interesting question of whether Oscar lobbying efforts
are driven more by advertising or PR. 'It's both,' says an LA-based PR
executive. 'Most of these campaigns are designed jointly with the
studios and the publicists for the (stars), directors and
Much of the publicity efforts are handled in-house, but the studios also
make use of the services of elite PR firms on both coasts, such as
Lizzie Grubman/Peggy Siegal Public Relations, Bumble Ward & Associates
While all the studios are good at generating publicity, no studio has
mastered the art of Oscar lobbying quite as well as New York-based
Miramax, which this year nabbed a Best Picture nomination for an
impressive tenth straight year. Perhaps Miramax's finest moment came
with Shakespeare in Love, which two year years ago earned seven Oscars,
including Best Picture, despite fierce competition from Steven
Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
'Spielberg was very bitter about not winning,' says Walls, adding that
Miramax came under heavy criticism for its overaggressive efforts. 'But
by 1999, everybody was copying Miramax,' Walls adds.
Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein takes tremendous pride in his
Oscar-lobbying skills. In fact, he blamed the lack of Oscars for The
Talented Mr. Ripley last year on an illness that prevented him from
personally trumpeting the film and its stars in the months prior to the
This year, Miramax's PR machine triumphed again when it managed to
secure a Best Picture nomination, along with four other nominations, for
the film Chocolat, which received mixed reviews. Entertainment Weekly
critic Lisa Schwarzbaum describes the studio's lobbying efforts, which
included more than 100 advertisements in the trade press and numerous TV
spots, as 'a PT Barnum campaign.'
Mark Gill, president of Miramax LA, defended the efforts, telling the
Los Angeles Times, 'It's the only way to stay in the game. You can level
the charge that there's too much studio spending, but you can't say
we're out there alone. Everyone's doing it.'
There's no doubt that Miramax has benefited from their lobbying
'Getting all those Oscars helped turn Miramax into a major studio,' says
Walls. Successful Oscar campaigns can also provide a huge return on
Shakespeare in Love soared from a modestly successful dollars 36-million
picture to a more than dollars 110-million mega-hit, largely on the
heels of its success at the Academy Awards.
Of course, not all Oscar lobbying succeeds. This year, the campaign to
get Best Actress recognition for Bjork for her role in the Fine Line
film, Dancer in the Dark, failed to register with Academy members,
although the Icelandic pop star ended up with a Golden Globe nomination.
New Regency and Fox also failed to get recognition for Colin Farrell for
his work in the little-seen Tigerland.
But even those efforts aren't wasted, says Amy Newman, VP at Edelman's
entertainment division. With the advent of DVD and home video, a film
now has a financial life that extends beyond its theatrical run. PR
efforts spent trying to snag awards end up having the additional benefit
of driving awareness about the film - often just as it's arriving at
'Maxim, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly all now have sections
devoted to DVD, which really extends the film publicity efforts,' says
But for the next week, as it prepares for the March 25 awards ceremony,
the industry will focus on celebrating movies as an art form.
Ultimately, it is a concern that exaggerated promotional efforts will
somehow permanently distort the awards process and turn the Academy
Awards into more of a marketing prize than a merit-based achievement.
And now that there is more public dialogue about the aggressiveness of
Oscar lobbying, the Academy is under some pressure to put caps on
Walls says that will be difficult. 'Everybody will decry it, but I don't
think anybody will change it,' she says. 'It's like John McCain and
campaign finance reform. Because (the lobbying is) effective, it will