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Gauging the Oscar odds

November 04, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

As the head of the entertainment division of Sitrick and Co., a leading crisis-management public relations firm, Allan Mayer is an expert spinmeister on showbiz scandal and disaster. He's helped Rush Limbaugh deal with the fallout from revelations that he was addicted to painkillers allegedly obtained from his maid. He's been aiding R. Kelly, who is facing 21 felony counts of possessing child pornography. He also advised Paula Poundstone after the comedian's children were put into foster care following her pleading no contest to charges of child endangerment.

So what's Mayer doing working as an Oscar consultant for New Line Cinema's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"? Has a rival film studio been spreading malicious gossip about a Hobbit payola scandal? Is the National Enquirer at work on an expose about the movie's sexed-up special effects? Or, to be slightly more serious, have the Oscars become such a high-stakes face-off that studios need damage control experts to help their films navigate the often bumpy ride that leads to Academy Awards glory?

"Even though we're best known for crisis management, what we fundamentally sell is strategic counsel," says Mayer, a former magazine editor and political reporter. "I think our involvement shows that the Oscars have an importance beyond peer recognition of talent. For a lot of studios, Oscar nominations have a huge economic importance. And for New Line, it's a big issue of pride -- they bet the company on this movie."

New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz says he learned of Mayer from the work he did for Universal Pictures as a troubleshooter for "A Beautiful Mind," the Russell Crowe-starring biopic that won best picture in 2002, despite being dogged by charges that it had sanitized the troubled life of mathematician John Forbes Nash.

But Schwartz insists he didn't hire Mayer because he was worried that "The Lord of the Rings" would be a target of the dirty tricks that have become an all-too-familiar occurrence in recent Oscar campaigns.

"We feel Allan is a terrific strategist who has the ability to get our movie off the entertainment pages and stimulate broader kinds of editorial coverage," says Schwartz, who signed Mayer to an exclusive yearlong contract this March. "It's an out-of-the-box choice, but we feel that because he's an outsider, he can help us try to find a unique way to position the movie."

What Schwartz is too cagey to say for public consumption is that New Line is under tremendous pressure to win an Oscar for the final installment in the Peter Jackson-directed "Rings" trilogy. The studio's huge gamble in bankrolling "Rings" has paid off at the box office. But Oscar plaudits have largely eluded the series, whose first film earned 13 nominations, but only had six nominations the second time around, with no major-category wins either time. Many Academy members gave short shrift to the second film in the series, perhaps deciding to reward the final installment.

The heat is on. New Line needs a victory, both as a vindication for Jackson and for the studio, which has never won a best picture statuette. So the studio is leaving nothing to chance. In addition to Mayer, the studio has hired an impressive array of publicists to aid its campaign, including such veterans as David Horowitz, Melody Korenbrot, Johnny Friedkin, Ronni Chasen and Gail Brounstein. As Mayer puts it: "It's a lot like a company hiring three or four different ad agencies to come up with a campaign. It's good to have a lot of people with different ideas and strengths."

Early-bird rankings

Which brings us to our annual early-bird assessment of the top Oscar best picture contenders. It looks like a big year for studio movies, in part because of the increasing conservatism of the Academy -- "Lost in Translation" is my favorite film of the year, but its cool sensibility probably won't speak to aging Oscar voters -- and in part because of the now infamous Oscar screening controversy.

With so many critics and guild award groups deprived of screeners this year, big studio movies will have more of an advantage than in the past, since many voters may make their picks based on buzz and marketing hype, not actual film going.

Indie-type films will be especially hurt by the cancellation of the L.A. Film Critics Awards, a hasty, self-destructive move that will deprive smaller, more challenging films of a key endorsement.

Our predictions are far from infallible, although "Chicago," last year's 5-1 favorite, was the ultimate winner. Here's a look at this year's race:


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