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The Big Picture

An Oscar Mantra: Press to Excess

February 05, 2002|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

I was around a gaggle of movie people the other night who were all talking about the Oscars. That wouldn't be such an odd thing at this time of year, except for one thing: The awards themselves were something of an after-thought. Everybody was talking about their favorite over-the-top Oscar campaigns.

Once again, it's Oscar overkill season. And once again, the classy part of the Oscars--the Academy Awards themselves--is being overshadowed by the overamped excess of studio Oscar advertising and publicity. Even given the usual carpet-bombing-style academy marketing campaigns, this has been a banner year for hype and negative campaigning. But the most fascinating tug-of-war has been between Universal and Miramax, which have been in a spitting match over Miramax's alleged involvement in a campaign to badmouth "A Beautiful Mind."

The behind-the-scenes battle began in late December when a Miramax Oscar publicist phoned a reporter to tip him off to a piece that ran in the Drudge Report before Christmas that said gay scenes from Sylvia Nasar's book "A Beautiful Mind" had been "completely scrubbed" from the film.

Miramax czar Harvey Weinstein initially apologized to Universal studio chief Stacey Snider. But the battle has escalated since. Roger Friedman, who writes a column for FoxNews.com, has repeatedly attacked the credibility of "A Beautiful Mind" while repeatedly fawning over Miramax's Oscar contenders. The columns have raised eyebrows because the columnist has close ties to Miramax, having edited a pair of Talk magazine Oscar issues and served as a producer of a documentary that is being distributed by Miramax. (Friedman said that he reviews movies "based on my feelings, not based on what studio they're from.")

At Golden Globes time, the New York Post ran a story detailing Miramax's involvement in phoning anti-"Beautiful Mind" tips to reporters and an ensuing flurry of phone calls between Universal and Miramax. Both sides have since denied having any problems, but believing Universal was somehow behind the story, Weinstein angrily confronted Snider at a post-Globes party, where he threatened to retaliate against "A Beautiful Mind," according to eyewitnesses. Miramax spokesman Mathew Hiltzik said about the incident: "It's a completely inaccurate third-party account of a private conversation. Harvey has incredible respect for Stacey Snider and everyone at Universal."

And then there are the Oscar ads! From the time Oscar ballots went out Jan. 8 to last Friday, the deadline for ballot submissions, the two Hollywood trade papers, the New York Times and this newspaper have been stuffed with ads noisily competing for the attention of the 5,000-odd academy voters. When asked why DreamWorks ran three "Shrek" ads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times every Friday last month, studio marketing chief Terry Press said: "Because everyone else ran two." Disney even ran full-page best picture trade ads for "Pearl Harbor," a movie likely to get about as many Oscar votes as "Not Another Teen Movie."

The usual critic hosannas have been drowned out by a tidal wave of blurbs from everyone from George Will, who gushed over "A Beautiful Mind," to "The Shipping News" author E. Annie Proulx, who shilled for the movie version of her own book, calling it "a brilliant film I didn't dream could be made!"

Even though the Oscar nominations won't be announced for another week, Miramax has been running ads touting "Amelie" as "One of the 5 Best Picture Oscar Nominees!" after first saying, "Premiere Magazine picks 'Amelie' as:" in smaller type. Twentieth Century Fox has been touting "Moulin Rouge" to older academy members with kudos from movie musical giants Stanley Donen and Robert Wise.

And Miramax has been running "In the Bedroom" ads with a blurb from Vanity Fair society writer Dominick Dunne, who was initially billed as "one of the most important writers of our time" but by Friday was demoted to "one of the most respected journalists in America." In what many view as poor taste, the ad trades on Dunne's own personal tragedy--his daughter was strangled by her boyfriend some years ago--to lend authenticity to his praise by having him say, "As one who has lived the experience, I found the [film's] astonishing resolution both terrifying and noble."

Still, my favorite Oscar revelation came during an actors' round-table interview in last week's issue of Newsweek, where "In the Bedroom" leading man Tom Wilkinson revealed that Miramax had given him a secret memo "about how to conduct ourselves when talking to the press about 'In the Bedroom.' There were about 10 things. You're not allowed to refer to how much the movie cost to make. You're not allowed to call it 'The Little Train That Could....'"

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