For the past decade, Miramax Films has been an Oscar juggernaut, earning at least one best picture nomination for nine years straight. But this year was going to be the end of the streak.
The studio's two candidates were its weakest ever: "All the Pretty Horses" was a critical and commercial bomb; and "Chocolat" didn't look like a much better bet, especially when it was dismissed by many of the top-tier critics as a lightweight trifle. Most insiders thought it had as much chance of scoring an Oscar nomination as the Backstreet Boys had of being a Grammy best album finalist.
Then along comes Oscar nomination day and--shazam--Miramax is back in the race. "Chocolat" grabbed a longshot best picture nomination and four other nods, including best actress and supporting actress nominations for Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench, respectively. It's a triumph for Miramax, but it's even more a triumph of marketing, illustrating how much of a media event the Oscar race has become. But that's true of the movie business in general; in today's Hollywood, marketing expenditures have gone through the roof, because in an era when you live or die on opening weekend, marketing is cinematic oxygen--it essentially separates the winners from the losers.
So is it any surprise that the Academy Awards, for all their pretense of heft and seriousness, have become a mass marketing free-for-all? The difference, of course, is that instead of marketing movies to teenagers, as studios do the rest of the year, Oscar season finds studios selling their prestige fare to adults. It's no secret among Oscar marketers that because of academy qualifying rules, Oscar voters are the oldest political constituency this side of Palm Beach County; if you found them in front of their living room TV, they'd more likely be watching "These Old Broads" than "Temptation Island" or XFL football.
Miramax's "Chocolat" campaign was a brilliant, if sometimes disingenuous, vehicle to reach the academy's aging voter block. Many people believed that Universal Focus' equally sentimental "Billy Elliot" was a far stronger contender than "Chocolat." But the studio released "Elliot" early in the fall, and by the time Oscar voters were focused on the race, "Elliot" had already peaked: Its buzz was gone.
Miramax launched "Chocolat" in December, and because the Lasse Hallstrom-directed film is aimed at older moviegoers anyway, the studio could run a two-pronged campaign, focusing on adults and academy members at the same time.
Every time you picked up one of the four publications that are most read by Oscar voters--Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times--you saw a "Chocolat" ad. By Miramax's own accounting, it outspent everyone else in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times during the nomination period, buying $1.8 million in ads compared with $1.5 million for "Erin Brockovich" and $661,000 for "Gladiator."
In the trades, "Erin Brockovich" led with 115 total ad pages, followed by "Chocolat" with 104, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with 93 and "Pollock" with 76 pages of ads--and that film ended up with two major nominations (actor and supporting actress).
Of course, "Chocolat" was in general release, so its ads were generating box-office revenue; "Brockovich" and 'Gladiator" had already finished their theatrical runs, so their ads were solely aimed at Oscar voters. Still, the Miramax ad onslaught didn't go unnoticed. As Wall Street Journal columnist Tom King put it: "The 'Chocolat' campaign takes the cake. Miramax has flooded the airwaves with expensive TV ads that intersperse clips of the film with interviews with Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp talking about how extraordinary it is."
In an obvious effort to counter the critics' dismissal of the film as celluloid piffle, Miramax ran a barrage of ads emphasizing the movie's alleged message of tolerance, with one critic's blurb calling the film "profoundly humanistic." The studio even ran a quote from Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, praising the film for addressing "prejudice and intolerance in a sensitive and entertaining manner."
It wasn't the first time Miramax had used the ploy. The studio's Oscar ads for "Il Postino" had blurbs from literary lions like William Styron and "Like Water for Chocolate" author Laura Esquivel. Still, the "Chocolat" campaign was the studio's biggest stretch ever. "It's a P.T. Barnum campaign," Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum said recently. "It's tacky as can be. They put all their money into the marketing rather than the quality of the film."