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Race for the Oscars Produces Ad Frenzy

With no front-runners for Academy Awards, studios are breaking out marketing checkbooks.

January 18, 2002|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With no clear front-runner for best picture or in other major categories, the Oscars are a true horse race this year. So an unusually large field of film companies with strong contenders are spending conspicuously for ads in the trade papers Variety and the Hollywood Reporter as well as in consumer publications, mainly the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, the two cities in which the highest percentage of academy voters live and work.

Intensifying the ad blitz is the fact that many of the strongest contenders were released in the last few weeks of 2001 and are in general release right now, making the contest more heated than usual as studios jockey for better placement in publications to attract moviegoers and focus academy voter attention at the same time.

Movies that were released more than six months ago ("Moulin Rouge," "Shrek") must clamor for recognition amid a pack of newer films still benefiting from their normal publicity campaigns.

Miramax, one of the most savvy Oscar competitors, is going further, buying TV spots for older films such as "The Others," whose ads tout Nicole Kidman's lead performance. Studios almost never buy television ads for movies that are not in general release. In addition, Miramax purchased time on local TV and cable stations to present studio documentaries about six of their Oscar-potential films, "Amelie," "The Others," "The Shipping News," "In the Bedroom," "Iris," and "Bridget Jones's Diary."

This weekend, it is taking an almost unprecedented step, sneak-previewing the Italian entry for the foreign-language Oscar, "The Son's Room." (Companies generally preview only English-language films due for imminent national release.)

"It's a wide-open year and anything is possible," says David Brooks, Miramax's co-head of marketing. "This year we have more movies to support and other [studios] are really going for it, so we have to be competitive and make sure we don't get lost in the shuffle."

Even having only one film in contention doesn't guarantee that a film company can stint on advertising. DreamWorks, which has won the last two best picture races ("American Beauty" and "Gladiator"), has been splashily promoting "Shrek," which is already well into its video and DVD release. Like "Gladiator," it debuted in the early part of 2001. Terry Press, DreamWorks' head of marketing, says she has to remind Oscar voters that "Shrek" was a 2001 release and educate them that the film is eligible both for this year's new animation Oscar and other categories including best picture.

What she didn't count on was having to shout above the din of so many competing films. "Even the 'shoo-ins' are buying huge ads," Press says. "It's mind-boggling."

The Christmas-in-January aspect (as one studio marketing head described it) of this year's Oscar ad push is heaviest in the days following the academy members' receipt of Oscar ballots, which were mailed Jan. 8.

Since all members of the academy can nominate a best picture and the biggest bloc of voters--the acting branch--selects the 20 performances in four categories, the next few weeks are the filmmakers' best chance to be in the running when the nominations are announced Feb. 12.

"This is the time when everyone feels they have to make their statements, because 60% to 70% of the ballots are usually mailed back in the first week," says Russell Schwartz, head of marketing at New Line Cinema, which is touting "Lord of the Rings" and the drama "I Am Sam," starring Sean Penn.

Although no one would discuss dollar amounts, one veteran Oscar campaigner says that companies with viable best picture nominees may end up shelling out somewhere between $10 million and $15 million by the time Academy Awards season draws to a close.

There hasn't been such intensity surrounding the Oscars since the best picture fight-to-the-finish between Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" and DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan" three years ago, according to Variety publisher Charles Koons. "It's been a very healthy year for us as it is any time there's no clear front-runner like a 'Titanic,'" he says.

Over at the Hollywood Reporter, associate publisher Lynn Segall says the increase for that publication may be as much as 25% to 30% over last year.

"There are more movies in the mix this year," Segall says. "Even smaller movies like 'Memento' want to be players and are coming to us with [ad] schedules."

Also, adds Segall, after Jan. 1, when the critics chime in and the Golden Globe nominations have been announced, some studios cut back on films that appear to have lost momentum. This year, however, there has been no critical consensus around any film, so there hasn't been the usual January drop-off in ads.

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