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In the Campaign for Oscars, Independents Try Harder


Television viewers this week can tune into an unusual offering from Miramax Films: "Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood." But this is no dramatic feature by a latter-day Frank Capra. "Mr. Thornton" is a paid infomercial, promising "the fascinating story behind 'Sling Blade' and its creator and star, Billy Bob Thornton."

Switch on the morning talk shows, and there's Brenda Blethyn, no longer "Brenda who?" following her Oscar nomination in October Films' "Secrets & Lies." And concert-goers, ignoring critics' warnings, can swoon to the highly erratic stylings of touring pianist David Helfgott, whose hard-luck story was related by Fine Line's acclaimed "Shine."

The media airwaves are filled with declarations of independents--independent movies, that is, or what passes for them these days. With a host of films distributed outside the major studios earning a surprising number of Academy Award nominations--including a record four tapped in the best picture category this year--rivals are waging long-running marketing and publicity campaigns aimed at turning erstwhile no-names into Oscar-worthy notables.

"The first rule of independent film is you have to try harder every step of the way," explained Miramax marketing president Mark Gill.

Let no one accuse Miramax of not trying hard. The company is airing "Mr. Thornton" and another half-hour spot plugging "The English Patient," its other big Oscar contender, on local and cable TV in the top 20 media markets, including Los Angeles and New York, where the majority of Oscar voters live. Miramax has also tinkered endlessly with its "Sling Blade" ad campaign since the movie bowed last December.

That's pretty much business as usual for Miramax, the super-aggressive specialty film unit of Walt Disney Co., which could show the Clinton administration a thing or two about lobbying. Last year, for instance, the company did everything short of renting the Lincoln Bedroom to ensure the modest Italian film "Il Postino" of a best-picture nomination.

The difference this year is that Miramax does not have the so-called independent market cornered anymore. Other companies with large bankrolls and corporate backing have copied its formula of relentless, long-range promotions of inexpensive movies aimed at the art-house crowd. These include Gramercy Pictures, a unit of conglomerate PolyGram, whose quirky "Fargo" is among the best picture nominees, and the up-and-coming October, which also scored critical success with the bleak drama "Breaking the Waves."

The independent companies "are all jostling now," noted Harold Vogel, an entertainment analyst at New York-based Cowen Co., who added that by now Oscar campaigns and box-office prospects have become almost inextricably linked for Miramax and its brethren.

"There are more of these [independent] films," Gill admitted. "Usually there's just one or two [in the Oscar race]. But it happens that right now there's a little more of an Oscar challenge. It's four independent movies all opening wide at the same time for the same distinctive audience."

Indeed, the smaller distributors are trying to capitalize on the Oscar attention by taking their movies into more theaters. Miramax is showing "Sling Blade" on 268 screens, up from 154 last weekend. With more than 1,000 locations, "Shine" has an exceptionally wide release for an independent film.

The Oscars are important to these companies not so much because they mean artistic validation--good reviews have in most cases already provided that--but because they virtually guarantee an extra kick at the box office. While few specialized films have a prayer of grossing much more than $20 million, award nominations can help double or triple that figure, according to industry sources. With limited marketing budgets--most independents spend only a fraction of the $30 million common in studio ad campaigns--the independents can keep the films in the marketplace for months.

Miramax has proven that time and again. "The Piano," for instance, had grossed about $18 million before receiving multiple nominations, according to the distributor; the film went on to rake in $43 million. The company figures "The Crying Game" earned about two-fifths of its $63-million haul in the six weeks between the nominations and Oscar night.

Hence the Academy Award blitz. Miramax has tweaked the ads for the downbeat "Marvin's Room," playing up nominee Diane Keaton as well as the story's admittedly scarce comedic moments (more dour ads bombed with viewers, company officials say). The TV spots for the video version of "Fargo" emphasize the nominations. Fine Line has invited academy members to a series of intimate dinners with Scott Hicks and Geoffrey Rush, the director and star of "Shine."

"We've done everything we can do to keep Geoffrey and Scott close to the voting population," said a Fine Line spokesperson.

Longtime leader Miramax is clearly feeling the pinch. With less than two weeks before Oscar night, "Sling Blade" has grossed but $3 million--a problem, since the distributor paid an estimated $10 million to acquire it. Despite strong reviews and word of mouth, the movie has had a hard time flourishing in a crowded indie-film market.

" 'Sling Blade' has got to be one of the tougher movies we've worked on," Gill said, pointing out that early ad campaigns emphasizing the story and its resonant visual imagery fizzled with viewers.

The new ads, along with the infomercial, focus on Thornton, his widely praised performance and the story behind the film. This approach both appeals to more viewers, Miramax officials believe, and protects the company's long-term investment. The distributor recently signed Thornton to a multi-picture deal guaranteeing him at least $2 million per picture plus a healthy bite of the domestic gross.

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