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Oscar season seems to start earlier each year

'Cinderella Man' is in theaters again, signaling the start of the studios' rush to improve their shots at major awards.

November 23, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Forget the holiday wrapping paper and icicle lights filling stores way too early. This year's true seasonal herald is the sudden sight of Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger once again filling magazine pages and TV ad spots. "Cinderella Man" is back -- on select screens in New York and Los Angeles, on DVD as of Dec. 6, and, Universal marketers hope, in the hearts and minds of Academy members.

The film, which debuted in June to mixed reviews and a disappointing fourth-place opening with just over $18 million in box office business, is now being billed as one of the year's top-performing dramas. (That would be behind "The Interpreter" and "Coach Carter.")

Now, with its "Rediscover Cinderella Man" ads, Universal is hoping to remind people that Crowe's performance as pugilist Jim Braddock was generally considered the first Academy Award-worthy performance of the year. (That Crowe was subsequently embroiled in charges of assault against a New York hotel worker is something they hope people will forget.)

"We have a successful track record of movies released outside the academy corridor re-releasing" later in the year, said Adam Fogelson, president of marketing for Universal Pictures. "This seemed like a spectacular candidate for that."

With no clear front-runners as the award season arrives, and words like "dearth" being used to describe the industry's yearlong slump, Oscar campaigns are promising to be even more innovative than usual.

Since it opened, "Capote" ads have turned up in the oddest places, including the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Brokeback Mountain" began their award-season campaigns long before the movies have even opened, and Woody Allen's "Match Point" was trading on Oscar buzz before it had a distributor.

"Cinderella Man" may be the earliest of the "reminder" campaigns, but resurrection takes time, as Universal well knows. Citing "Erin Brockovich," "Moulin Rouge," "Braveheart" and, most recently, "Seabiscuit," Fogelson said that the studio has learned that, despite conventional wisdom, spring and summer releases can become major Oscar players if marketed correctly. "With the added benefit of providing some spectacular DVD sales," he said.

"Crash," which opened in May, is another film that will go into limited re-release for awards season. The "Crash" DVD came out in early September and Lions Gate Films has kept a drumbeat of publicity up since then, including print campaigns and an entire hour on "Oprah."

"Our advertising base will increase as awards season proceeds," says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing. "We feel very strongly that the picture speaks for itself, so it is a question of getting as many people on voting committees as possible to see it."

None of these tactics are new. Big studio films with big marketing budgets always flood screens during the holidays; indies, such as "Capote" or last year's critical darling "Sideways," try to hang on to a few screens, hoping to counterbalance lack of advertising; and movies that opened well in the spring and summer inevitably return with limited re-releases and DVD parties.

"Oscar campaigns actually begin in June," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released "Capote." "People are reserving screening rooms, submitting films to festivals, figuring out how to get early word of mouth."

In this year's depressed climate, even films with poor box office and so-so reviews have a chance. After all, the marketing goal of an Oscar hopeful is not making money or even critical success; the goal is to get as many voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as possible to see it. They're the ones who make the nominations, and the nominations are what bring in the big bucks on DVD sales.

"We opened 'Capote' in September because we figured it could sustain itself in theaters through nominations," Bernard says. "And it has. So now we figure about half the academy has seen the film on the big screen; in the next two weeks we'll do more screenings and then we'll have maybe two-thirds."

In the end, Bernard says, he's confident that "Capote" will hold its own. "There's only so much publicity you can buy. After that, it's all about the movie."

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