MARKET FOCUS MOVIE PR: Chasing Oscar - Strategic publicity playsthe starring role in the race to win. David Ward reports

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

experience.



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

and winners.



Promotional drama



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

hello.'



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

producers.'



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

and mPRm.



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

show.



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

efforts.



'Getting all those Oscars helped turn Miramax into a major studio,' says

Walls. Successful Oscar campaigns can also provide a huge return on

investment.



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

video stores.



'Maxim, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly all now have sections

devoted to DVD, which really extends the film publicity efforts,' says

Newman.



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

campaign spending.



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

prevail.'



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