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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

"The academy urges that the people involved exercise restraint in what they do and be dignified," said academy President Bob Rehme. "Other than that, there isn't much we can do."

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The guidelines, which have been in force for several years, prohibit such strategies as studios contacting academy members by phone, inviting them to dinners or receptions to promote a film, or mailing cassettes to members inside elaborate packages. Under the revised guidelines, studios are permitted this year for the first time to mail out DVDs as well as screenplays.

"We have decided it is OK for them to send out actual copies of screenplays so long as they are very plain--no blurbs or review quotes--to members of the writers' branch during the pre-nomination process," explained Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy.

Unlike recent years, when independent films "The English Patient," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Piano" gave the studios stiff competition at Oscar time, major studios are weighing in this year with an unusually large, eclectic lineup of character-driven, issue-oriented or epic dramas, such as "Anna and the King," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Man on the Moon," "Magnolia," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "The Hurricane," "Bringing Out the Dead," "Cradle Will Rock" and "Cider House Rules."

While Oscar campaigns have come to resemble their political counterparts, Hollywood observers say there is one major difference: While politicians can project a certain image and even try to pull the wool over voters' eyes, movies are out there on the big screen for all to see and judge for themselves. Still, they add, a good marketing campaign can insure that quality movies and performances are not overlooked.

"You have to know how to run a good campaign," said Arthur Cohen, who heads worldwide marketing at Paramount Pictures, and has been involved in hard-fought Oscar campaigns on behalf of "Braveheart" and "Forrest Gump."

"What marketing departments cannot do is waste time on movies that have no chance," Cohen explained. "My advice is to focus on the possibilities and back them. Do the best you can to get the movies seen on the big screen."

Getting films their proper notice is the job of a small army of marketing veterans to whom the studios turn year after year for help in coordinating their awards campaigns.

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And no one does it better than Miramax. The studio has its own in-house awards consultant in Cynthia Swartz, but it also uses Los Angeles-based publicist Tony Angellotti as a consultant.

Why do studios feel they need these consultants?

"There is a tremendous number of nuts and bolts that need to be taken care of," said Swartz. "You're setting up screenings, getting video cassettes produced, and there are 8 trillion applications that have to be filed."

Miramax has been praised and reviled for its past Oscar campaigns, but Swartz laughed off critics who say the company, which operates as an independent banner under the corporate umbrella of the Walt Disney Co., has devised some "secret" strategy to win the Academy Award. "There isn't any secret," she said. "You make your film as available as possible [for screening by academy members]."

Another lesson studios have learned from "Shakespeare in Love" is to have their stars available to publicize the films as much as possible.

"Gwyneth Paltrow was everywhere [during the last Oscar campaign]," said one Hollywood observer. "She was on every cover, at every premiere. 'Entertainment Tonight' must have had a piece featuring her twice a week. She was at this, she was at that, but she was doing stuff. With 'Elizabeth,' [Gramercy] had an actress [Cate Blanchett] who was in England."

This year, DreamWorks has what it believes is an Oscar-worthy film in "American Beauty," a dark comedy of suburban life starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, but marketing chief Press said her studio has limits on how far it will go to get it Oscar nominations.

"Will I make the movie available to academy members [for viewing]? Yes," Press said. "Will I make available cassettes? Yes. Will I take out trade ads? Yes. But I am not comfortable beginning a campaign in October. . . . Yes, we will definitely make our support for 'American Beauty' known, but not to the point of sacrificing good taste and respect for the process."

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