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Studios Are Spinning Golden Globes Buzz Into Oscar Hopes

The publicity helps fuel the Academy Awards races. Small marketing budgets seem to invite ingenuity.

January 19, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Orna Zadeh doesn't have Hollywood's most glamorous job. Much of her day at MGM is spent surfing the Internet and working the phones, tracking obscure Web sites.

Don't fret if you've never heard of Neil Moon's little-known Oscar prediction site, posted from Warwickshire, England. Zadeh has. She can tell you exactly what Moon thinks of every one of MGM and United Artists' top Oscar contenders -- and she has a four-page spreadsheet to prove it. According to Moon, "Igby Goes Down" could get three nominations; "Bowling for Columbine" may be named for best documentary and best director; and "Nicholas Nickleby" has a shot at four nominations, including best picture.

It may seem trivial, but Zadeh's command of these arcane details -- especially in the days leading up to tonight's Golden Globe Awards -- may not be so inconsequential. MGM cultivates Moon and more than a dozen other far-flung Internet film geeks to help generate the most elusive yet most critical component of an awards campaign: grass-roots buzz.

Even if no single Golden Globe or Academy Award voter ever visits, the person who bags their groceries just might. And in one brief chat after the paper-or-plastic query, one seed could be planted, one flicker of momentum. And that tiny edge might spell the difference between recognition and ignorance, particularly for a studio such as MGM that is riding a lot of long shots.

The Globes mark a midpoint in every studio's four-month quest for Oscar gold -- and a pivotal moment in every studio's awards push. It's why the Globes are taken seriously in Hollywood, even if the organization that gives them out isn't.

For a statistician, the Globes, put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., are a joke. With just 90 association members (two have died in the last two months), a nominee can theoretically win a trophy with a mere 19 first-place votes. But for industry insiders whose only mathematical worries are box-office figures, the Golden Globe numbers add up just fine.

That's because a Globe win can resuscitate the hopes of outsiders, including some of the people and films being pushed by MGM. Get a Golden Globe nomination and you can dedicate a lot more time and money to an Academy Award campaign. End up with a Golden Globe win, and you're racing around the track with a fresh tank of gas.

With the Globes coming up, MGM's marketing and publicity team has been in high gear, trying to take advantage of the tiniest shred of awards momentum. In a windowless fourth-floor conference room in Santa Monica, MGM's marketing and publicity staff (United Artists is part of MGM) gathers every week to strategize and compare notes. The studio allowed a reporter inside those team meetings, providing a rare glimpse into how an awards campaign is orchestrated.

This is not a front-running studio that has huge sums to spend promoting Oscar favorites such as "The Hours" (Paramount) or "Gangs of New York" (Miramax). Where other studios have A-list stars such as "The Hours' " Nicole Kidman, a media darling who has been all over television, newspapers and magazines, MGM's big gun is "Igby Goes Down" star Kieran Culkin -- who's been off doing a play in London and doesn't have a cell phone. Consequently, MGM's style is guerrilla marketing.

The biggest resource is ingenuity, not cash. "When you have a limited amount of money to spend, you have to spend the money very carefully," said Eric Kops, MGM's senior vice president for publicity. The studio to date has laid out about $300,000 campaigning for its six nominees and will devote an additional $100,000 over the coming weeks. That would be a lot of money for a tiny independent such as Lions Gate, trying to get best actress attention for "Secretary" star Maggie Gyllenhaal. But it's chump change for major studios that can pour millions into their Oscar push.

Making Plans

Like a precision military operation, a successful awards campaign anticipates every potential skirmish and drafts contingency plans to deal with casualties and unforeseen opportunities: If Sandra Bullock is unable to appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman" to tout her new Warner Bros. movie, "Two Weeks Notice," MGM's New York staff has a backup plan. Over the speaker phone, the New York contingent says Culkin, who has just finished his London play, is standing by, ready to replace her.

Overseen by Adam Keen, MGM special projects vice president, the awards team leaves no detail -- such as who will walk down which red carpet with whom -- to chance. The overriding goal is to reinforce a movie's merits in every Oscar voter's mind as many times as possible, so that when the polls close for Academy Award nominations on Jan. 29, MGM and UA movies are listed on as many ballots as possible. (The nominations are announced Feb. 11.)

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