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Isn't It a Bit Early to Talk About This Guy?

Movies * Early Oscar campaigns make some wonder if awards are earned by the best filmmakers or the scrappiest consultants.

October 04, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the "Shakespeare in Love" syndrome. Barely six months after the romantic comedy captured seven Academy Awards and triggered an uproar inside the film community over the campaign waged on its behalf by Miramax, the new Oscar season is already gearing up in Hollywood--one that looks to be harder fought than ever.

Just as presidential politics seem mired in a never-ending campaign that stretches from one election cycle to the next, the movie-awards season has also taken on the trappings of a long-running political contest, one replete with outside consultants, marketing schemes, mass mailings and finely tuned publicity and advertising campaigns. The lessons of last year's carefully planned "Shakespeare in Love" triumph haven't been lost on Hollywood.

And that has left some studio executives appalled.

"I am not comfortable turning this process into a campaign," said Terry Press, marketing chief at DreamWorks, whose studio felt the sting of defeat at the last Oscar show when Steven Spielberg's World War II combat drama "Saving Private Ryan" lost best picture honors to "Shakespeare."

"I think it has really gotten out of hand," Press said. "The whole question of studios pushing films for the Academy Awards is distasteful to me because it implies that it's a political process versus a quality process. It doesn't mean that all of us have to go along with it."

Studios may not like it, but they're quickly getting with the Oscar program.

This year, for instance, Paramount has brought in a former publicist at Universal Pictures and PolyGram Films, Bruce Feldman, to assist the studio in its Oscar campaign for "Angela's Ashes," director Alan Parker's adaptation of Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.

And at Sony, which has such films in the wings as Neil Jordan's "The End of the Affair," Luc Besson's "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," and James Mangold's "Girl Interrupted," awards consultant Michael Battaglia has already set up shop and is being assisted this season by Judi Schwam, who is coming off Gramercy Pictures' Oscar campaign for "Elizabeth."

"I don't think any longer we're looking at the Oscars as an event taking place late in the winter of the year," notes Bob Levin, who heads worldwide marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment. . . . It's really now backing up to this period of time [early fall]."

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Sources say Disney--with films such as Michael Mann's "The Insider" and Robin Williams in "Bicentennial Man," may hire outside consultants in the coming weeks, while Warner Bros., with such highly anticipated movies as Tom Hanks in "The Green Mile" and Oliver Stone's football film, "Any Given Sunday," is once again turning to its Oscar pro, David Horowitz, who a decade ago helped Orion Pictures in its successful back-to-back Oscar campaigns for "Dances With Wolves" and "The Silence of the Lambs."

At the same time, some studios have begun screening films for academy members. For example, Disney is screening "The Straight Story," a small film starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek.

And, taking a cue from Miramax, which successfully used glossy wraparound ads to draw attention to "Shakespeare in Love" and its star, Gwyneth Paltrow, industry observers say rival studios will be lining up to buy the same kind of ads in Hollywood's two trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, later this year.

Studio marketing departments are under enormous pressure to make sure that their films receive adequate attention, whether it be from members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who vote on the Oscars, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Golden Globes, or the myriad awards dispensed by critics groups and Hollywood's talent guilds.

One major reason is that when a film receives a nomination or goes on to capture a statuette, marketing departments then use the honors in their advertising and publicity in hopes of boosting a film's box office.

For example, just prior to the Oscar nominations on Feb. 9, "Shakespeare in Love" had taken in a total of $36.2 million. But after its nominations, the film went on to gross another $64 million in North America. Indeed, the film grossed $3.5 million on the weekend prior to the nominations and then, after adding 1,123 screens, it grossed $9.1 million the following weekend, according to the box-office tracking firm, Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

"We are living in a world where it is becoming more and more difficult [to get movies noticed] because of the clutter in the marketplace," said Bob Friedman, co-chairman of worldwide marketing for New Line Cinema. "Anything that helps differentiate a product on any level is essential."

"Last year, 'Shakespeare in Love' was not a broad-audience film, but the Oscar hype helped make it that," added Rolf Mittweg, New Line's other co-chairman of marketing.

Last Friday, the academy mailed out a revised list of guidelines to marketing departments reminding them how to conduct their Oscar campaigns.

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