Although it's already mid-October, the silence around this year's Oscar campaign, for the most part, has been deafening. As with its other publicity and marketing functions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and recently launched military campaign in Afghanistan, the motion picture industry has adopted a lower-profile approach to the customarily splashy premieres and press junkets for new films.
Behind the scenes, however, the wheels are still turning as Hollywood begins to release its serious Oscar contenders, most of which are crammed into December. As early as this year's Academy Awards ceremonies in March, a veteran Oscar consultant was approached by a studio executive hoping to lock in her services for the coming year and preempt the competition, despite the fact that the company's potential award-worthy films hadn't been finished. "Pretty soon, the campaign for next year's Oscars will begin before last year's Academy Awards have taken place," says Bob Harper, vice chairman of 20th Century Fox. Harper was exaggerating, but not by much.
In the past, the Oscar race began in earnest in November. This year, industry sources observe that the initial volley may have come in May when DreamWorks' "Shrek" had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time an animated film had been accepted into competition. The Cannes slot was seen as a validation of the film's pedigree, making it a front-runner for this year's new Oscar category, best animated feature. "Shrek" will be vying with numerous other animated movies this year, most prominently the upcoming "Monsters, Inc." from Disney/Pixar, which debuts Nov. 2.
A contest between Disney, whose name is synonymous with quality animation, and relative newcomer (and bitter rival) DreamWorks could add the same kind of spice to this year's Oscar campaigning as the ferocious competition for best picture between Miramax for "Shakespeare in Love" and DreamWorks for "Saving Private Ryan" did three years ago.
In the past decade, thanks in part to high-profile efforts of companies such as Miramax and DreamWorks, the Oscar campaign bar has been raised. Not only are studios launching their strategies earlier than ever, but they are becoming increasingly more visible to the public.
"At one time it was not considered proper if a studio was obvious [outside the film industry] about its campaigning," says Florence Grace, vice president of corporate publicity at 20th Century Fox. "I don't think that is necessarily true anymore." And while world events are reshaping the marketing approach for this year's contenders, producers and directors are still pushing their studios to get their films into the race early, according to one Oscar consultant.
Since Miramax and DreamWorks have waged fierce campaigns and won four of the last five best picture awards, the major studios and other top independent companies have followed suit and are investing more time and personnel in the whole awards process--not just the Academy Awards, but their precursors as well: the year-end critics' citations, the Golden Globes, the new American Film Institute awards and guild honors (Writers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild).
There has been jockeying to enter potential qualifiers at a major fall film festivals such as Toronto and New York as a launching pad, which DreamWorks did last year with "Almost Famous" and the year before with "American Beauty."
One key component in a successful Oscar campaign is the hiring of outside consultants to help studios assess the chances of their year-end releases and to sustain positive momentum on worthy films that have already been released. Last year's best picture winner, "Gladiator," debuted in May, and by early fall DreamWorks had placed outside consultants, such as former Universal marketing chief Bruce Feldman, on the campaign. Apart from "Shrek," the only other film many observers are mentioning for best picture so far is "Moulin Rouge," which also bowed in May.
"I used to get calls [from consultants] in October and November for my opinion on Oscar hopefuls," says Pete Hammond, an Oscar analyst and advisor for the TV network American Movie Classics. "This year I started getting calls in July."
An Oscar in one of the major categories means more than just prestige and ego gratification for a studio and its filmmakers. It can presage an economic windfall. Even securing a nomination for best picture can be crucial to a film's commercial prospects, as Miramax has proved the past two years with "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat," both of which more than doubled their U.S. box-office take after their nominations were announced, and saw their fortunes enhanced in international markets as well.