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All That Campaigning . . . Is There Really a Payoff?

Three veteran Academy Award publicists discuss the pluses and minuses of Hollywood's winter madness, a tradition almost as old as the honors themselves.

March 23, 1997|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

The Hollywood producer waved his newspaper in the air, pointing to the latest front-page expose of the Democratic Party's fund-raising scandal. "Bill Clinton must be so embarrassed to see all his shameless Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers laid out in public," he said. "Let's just hope no one ever figures out how much hustling goes on with Oscar campaigns."

The meek do not inherit the Earth, especially at Oscar time--unless they give themselves over to the annual razzle-dazzle ritual of the Oscar publicity campaign. Dating to 1935, when MGM took out the first Oscar trade ad (for the studio's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness"), movie studio publicists and independent publicity firms have waged relentless propaganda campaigns aimed at influencing the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

One legendarily aggressive film company has been suspected of hiring teams of phone-bank operators to woo the academy's 5,200 members with customized Oscar pitches in the weeks before ballots are cast. In 1982, the New York Daily News estimated that Hollywood studios spent $2 million on Oscar hype. Paramount responded by insisting that it campaigned only for pictures that "deserve the acclaim"--and then ran full-page ads touting "Friday the 13th: Part 3 in 3-D."

Not that any of this sly salesmanship is new. Beating the drums for Rosalind Russell's performance in 1947's "Mourning Becomes Electra," publicist Henry Rogers convinced a Las Vegas casino to post betting odds on the Oscar race--with his client somehow emerging as 6-5 favorite in the best actress category (Loretta Young won that year, for "The Farmer's Daughter"). In 1954, Warner Bros. ads touting "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" included a rave review from President Eisenhower, who proclaimed: "If you haven't seen this movie, you should!"

Occasionally, these Oscar blitzkriegs backfire. Academy members ignored Madonna and Courtney Love this year, perhaps turned off by the pop stars' all-too-obvious image overhauls. And it's still unclear whether an Oscar triumph brings more than fleeting prestige or a momentary career boost. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood publicists from pulling out all the stops during the key eight-week window between the mid-December New York and Los Angeles critics awards announcements and the mid-February Oscar nominations.

As far back as 1939, the academy ordered a cease-fire in "electioneering or lobbying," but the decree went unheeded. Although academy stipulations prevent publicists from baldly wooing voters with filet mignon and champagne dinner screenings--as Universal did for its campaign for "Anne of the Thousand Days" (1969)--today's Oscar campaigns are as hard-sell as ever.

Columbia Pictures gave "The People vs. Larry Flynt" a touch of class by running full-page ads reprinting a New York Times op-ed column praising the film as "the most patriotic movie of the year." (However, the "Flynt" filmmakers cried foul when the film's detractors ran ads attacking the film.) To remind voters how much best actor nominee Billy Bob Thornton transformed himself for his role in "Sling Blade," Miramax Films has been promoting the film with ads adorned with stylish photos of the handsome real-life Thornton.

To help examine how these Oscar campaigns work--and how much effect they have--Calendar hosted a round-table interview with three Hollywood publicists who have considerable experience in wooing Oscar voters: Paramount Pictures publicity chief Cheryl Boone Isaacs, PMK Public Relations President Pat Kingsley and the Angellotti Co.'s Tony Angellotti. Being savvy image makers, they managed to elude a few sticky questions--and downplay the role of their own well-oiled publicity machinery. But their spirited discussion does provide an intriguing glimpse at how the Oscar campaign game is played.

The Times: In an Oscar publicity campaign, you woo voters and run ads positioning your candidate. Doesn't it have a lot in common with a political campaign?

Pat Kingsley: We just don't have as much money to spend. But it's still a campaign. With the amount of people we have to reach, we'd do this door-to-door if we just had the addresses.

Times: Oscar campaigns certainly last as long. Fine Line Pictures was having Oscar strategy meetings for "Shine" last August. So when do your campaigns really begin?

Kingsley: I saw "My Left Foot" in February [1989], but even then, [Miramax Films chief] Harvey Weinstein was saying that Daniel Day-Lewis could win the Oscar [in 1990]. The movie wasn't coming out till the fall, but Harvey was saying, "We want to start now."

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