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The Oscars | THE OSCARS

A Blockbuster Campaign Can Be as Good as Gold

February 26, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz, John Horn and Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writers

Barely any A-list stars showed up at the Four Seasons Hotel for the "Maria Full of Grace" reception, just one of countless Oscar get-out-the-vote efforts that surface during awards season each year. A handful of people made cocktail party chatter with director Joshua Marston and star Catalina Sandino Moreno, sampled a few drab appetizers, then quickly went on their way, most with a modest parting gift: a copy of the film's DVD.

The "Sideways" blowout a few weeks later stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hundreds of top show business talent and Oscar voters jammed the restaurant Vibrato, where they drank expensive Hitching Post Pinot Noir by the gallon. On stage, the film's composer, Rolfe Kent, jammed with a jazz band.

Maybe only the naive consider the Academy Awards to be an evenhanded referendum on the best films, but rarely has it devolved into such a marked battle between the haves and the have-nots as it has with this year's motley crop of large and small contenders.

Desperate to adorn their films with the valuable Oscar seal of approval, well-heeled studios now spend as much as $15 million promoting the award chances for such movies as "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby." Other films, such as "Finding Neverland" and "Hotel Rwanda," try to stay in the race with a fraction of that.

"It's gotten out of control," said John Daly, executive producer of best picture winners "Platoon" and "The Last Emperor." "And the costs have become prohibitive for a smaller film. You may not be cutting into the profits. You may not even have any profits."

Unlike last year, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" dominated the Oscars, there is no clear favorite in the best picture race, making Hollywood look a lot like a presidential election battleground state, with studios scouring for every possible vote, often at a steep financial and personal price.

According to several experts and competitors, Warner Bros. and Miramax have spent about $15 million each on the campaigns for "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Aviator." That's almost what it cost to make best picture nominee "Sideways."

Pinpointing the exact campaign budgets is as elusive as getting a look at the next "Star Wars" screenplay. Both Miramax and Warner Bros. said they spent only $4 million on the Oscar push for "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby," respectively. (A Warners spokesman, discussing "Million Dollar Baby," said that studio's figure doesn't include the cost of promoting the film's theatrical release.)

Yet, even the makers of some of this year's best picture nominees say the spending is out of control. "The time and money that goes into these campaigns is so disproportionate to the budgets of the films," said "Sideways" producer Michael London. "The more money other people spend, the more you have to spend to remain competitive."

In fact, "Sideways' " push hasn't been insignificant, costing an estimated $10 million, said one participant, although a studio spokesman insists that "it's millions less than that."

"Someone needs to rein in the whole system," London said.

Thus far the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which should be in the best position to do so, has had little success. "The only answer is that everyone join together and take up something like the salary cap in sports or campaign contributions in political campaigns," London said.

Added Richard Gladstein, producer of best picture nominee "Finding Neverland": "Once you've been nominated, that's the place to stop" campaigning for awards.

The disparity between the Oscar rich and poor this year is stark. Paramount Pictures spent almost $200,000 to fly Mick Jagger and his entourage on a private jet to the Golden Globe Awards -- and he didn't even end up with an Oscar nomination for best original song for "Alfie."

On the other hand, the complete Oscar budget for "Maria Full of Grace," whose star garnered a best actress nomination, totals less than $1 million. The awards budget for "Vera Drake," another film with a best actress contender, is about $2 million.

The spending variance even exists between different divisions of the same conglomerate. New Line Cinema's "Maria Full of Grace," with star Sandino Moreno, is going up against Hilary Swank and "Million Dollar Baby," which was released by Warner Bros. Both are owned by Time Warner Inc.

The tough reality for smaller movies is that an Academy Award can be far more beneficial to them than to a blockbuster, helping turn an art film from a money-losing labor of love into a box-office hit.

"Sideways," the critically acclaimed dark comedy about two Pinot-swilling guys on a wine-country road trip, has seen its box-office gross soar to $59 million -- partly because of its five Oscar nominations and Fox Searchlight's aggressive campaign on its behalf.

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