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Oscar Gold Diggers

Studios and film companies must spend lavishly to promote their wares. When actors -- and their retinues -- are involved, costs soar.

November 16, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Sony is laying off 1,700 U.S. employees. Time Warner wants to unload its music division. Disney has pink-slipped scores of animators in Paris, Tokyo and Orlando, Fla. It's penny-pinching time across Hollywood -- except when it comes to awards-season campaigning, where there's still plenty of room for $5,000-a-day hairstylists and $50,000-a-trip private jets.

Over the next 3 1/2 months, studios and independent film companies will lay out small fortunes -- perhaps as much as $20 million on just one movie -- promoting their films for the Oscars and dozens of other awards handed out by everybody from the American Cinema Editors to the Writers Guild of America.

Thanks mostly to a ban on sending free videocassettes and DVDs to many voters, campaign costs could be higher than ever, as film distributors have been forced to book screening rooms around the globe to showcase their films.

It's not simply the private previews that have made some awards campaigns cost more than the actual production budgets of several contending movies. Rather, it's the array of hidden costs of everything from celebrity grooming to antipiracy security guards that has turned the awards derby into a break-the-bank arms race. But no matter their ultimate cost, awards -- and the prestige and additional box-office returns they bring -- are irresistible.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar winner -- A story on the costs of Academy Award campaigning that ran in Sunday's Section A mistakenly said that Halle Berry won the 2002 best actress Oscar. She won the award for 2001.

"You [campaign] because in some cases your filmmakers have worked for years on their movies," says Dick Cook, whose Disney studios is making a big best-picture push for "Finding Nemo," perhaps the best-reviewed movie of the year. "Awards are very prestigious for a studio, for a film and for everyone associated with making it."

Deep-pocket studios such as 20th Century Fox and Miramax are able to absorb campaign costs without ruining the bottom line. The two companies are expected to spend huge sums promoting their respective epics "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and "Cold Mountain" for the glut of prizes that culminate with the Academy Awards, which will be presented Feb. 29, nearly a month earlier than this year's ceremony.

For the studios, the huge investment in Oscar campaigning -- including weeks of TV and print advertising -- is a relatively small share of the overall cost of making and marketing big-budget movies.

For smaller movie outfits, however, many of whom typically make the most artistically ambitious films, it's a struggle to keep pace. An extra $1 million spent pushing "Lost in Translation" for an Oscar, for instance, can spell the difference between a profit or a loss for the drama's distributor, Focus Features.

"There's only so much you can do to compete with the overwhelming spending," says Tom Ortenberg, whose Lions Gate Films is pushing its modestly budgeted releases "The Cooler," "Shattered Glass" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring" for awards consideration.

Yet the pressure to back a movie for awards consideration, driven in part by the financial windfall that comes with winning a top honor, is so intense that producers and distributors have no recourse but to join the trophy chase, no matter how expensive the contest has become.

"It puts us in a much tougher position," says Bob Berney of Newmarket Films, the distributor of awards hopefuls "Whale Rider" and the upcoming "Monster." "It just means we will have to spend more."

Because of a recent deal struck between the seven major studios and the organization that hands out the Academy Awards, the studios and their specialized film units can send free videocassettes of their films only to the 5,800 Academy Awards voters.

To spark interest from the tens of thousands of other voters who decide every other Hollywood trophy, film distributors must pry these voters from their living rooms and get them into movie theaters.

One solution was obvious. Just as the best-known performers can help sell tickets at the multiplex, they also can lure hundreds of voters to private screenings. After all, where else can the audience chat up "Master and Commander's" Russell Crowe?

Oscar guidelines prevent trotting out stars to Academy Awards screenings, but there is nothing to stop talent from participating in question-and-answer discussions during the scores of screenings for the Hollywood unions that hand out trophies before the Oscars. In the last week alone, "21 Grams" star Naomi Watts attended three industry screenings of her film.

Renting a small screening room costs about $600 a showing, depending on the city, and it can cost as much as $4,000 to rent a posh, stadium-seating theater for a night. Additional costs can include security ($1,500 a night), audience snacks and parking.

But it's those special screenings and other events that include a personal appearance by an actor that have become financially prohibitive, the studios say.

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