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'Passion' play for Oscars rejected

Gibson vows not to buy ads to push his film, but DVDs are sent out.

November 19, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Mel Gibson employed guerrilla tactics to market his controversial blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ" to the masses. Now he's turning to an equally unconventional campaign to capture an Academy Award.

The director is bucking tradition with a vow not to spend a penny on television, radio or print advertising to help boost the film's chances of winning an Oscar nomination. The gambit comes as the rest of Hollywood braces for the possibility of record spending on awards campaigns because the field is considered wide open, with no single film emerging as a front-runner for best picture.

That doesn't mean that Gibson's Icon Productions is staying out of the fray, or shying away from other kinds of spending. It plans to send out 7,000 to 8,000 DVDs to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other industry guilds that vote on the Oscars and other prestigious honors. The company is also staging numerous theater screenings for voters.

One such screening was held Monday night for members of the Directors Guild of America and was followed by Gibson answering questions from an audience of his fellow DGA members.

"As far as joining in a contest to see who can spend the most dollars campaigning for a film, we do not propose to enter into that game," said Bruce Davey, Icon's president and Gibson's longtime producing partner on films including "Braveheart" and "What Women Want."

Calling the money spent on Oscar campaigns "outrageous," Davey said the Academy Awards were "conceived to acknowledge artistic merit and performance, not to acknowledge the ability to buy numerous ads and try to swing it one way or another."

The strategy is sure to add to Hollywood's mixed feelings about the R-rated film, which recalls the hours leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus. At the time of its release, Gibson found himself defending the movie against those who said it had the potential to incite anti-Semitism.

The film defied many expectations and went on to gross more than $625 million, turning Gibson into one of Hollywood's most powerful players. "Passion" is considered a possible Oscar contender for best picture, director, actor and cinematography.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Gibson's campaign strategy will hurt or help "The Passion's" chances. And some wonder whether the tactic is part of a well-orchestrated publicity ploy. Regardless, it is believed to be the highest-profile movie to take the risk of eschewing the traditional high-priced award campaigns, which can run into the millions of dollars.

Academy President Frank Pierson said Icon's move was a step in the right direction.

"This kind of aggressive, competitive campaigning is really destructive, and it's destructive in every sense," Pierson said. "It puts the less well-heeled at a disadvantage the same way a political campaign does for less well-heeled candidates. But I also think it wearies the public and it cheapens the whole process."

Concerns that the Oscars campaign will turn into a high-stakes horse race are more pronounced than ever this year. With just a few weeks to go before eligibility for the 2004 film year comes to a close, no single film or performance appears poised to overshadow the competition.

"When there is a front-runner like 'The Lord of the Rings,' there is no reason to take out a bunch of ads," said DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press. "In a vacuum, it's every man for himself."

Charles C. Koones, executive vice president and publisher of Daily Variety, one of Hollywood's two major trade publications, said Oscar advertising was currently strong.

"I can't remember a year when it was this undetermined at this point in time," Koones said of the Oscar race. "We are seeing what I would characterize as a very high degree of demand" in Oscar ads.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved up its Oscar telecast by a month to February, questions arose about what effect the move might have on the number of "for your consideration" ads that studios and independents routinely run in the trades and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times. Some even wondered whether the shortened Oscar season would result in a toning down of campaigns that have grown louder and more brazen each year.

"What we found was that, fortunately for us, there was not a lessening of demand," Koones said. "If you look at Variety now, we have a high degree of demand. We're running a lot of 'for your consideration' advertising right now."

He said the first such ad appeared in September. In the past, such ads didn't begin appearing until early December, Koones said.

Some said Icon is making a shrewd attempt to gain attention with an offbeat strategy.

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