IT'S been hard to find anyone in the last few weeks who hasn't been talking about "Dreamgirls," which is sitting pretty in the pole position of this year's Oscar derby. But if there's one person who hasn't been taking the movie's academy appeal for granted, it's DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, who's spent the last year burnishing the film's credentials, not simply as an Oscar film, but as a movie event.
"I don't get up in the morning without remembering -- this is an all-black cast in a musical, knowing an all-black cast has never won an Oscar," she said the other day. "The whole idea, from day one, has to be to event-ize this movie."
Last December, even before filming had started, Press assembled a teaser trailer that ran in front of films such as "The Producers," the implicit message being, "If you like this film, you'll really want to see this one." After the musicals "The Producers" and "Rent" bombed late last year, Press realized she needed to show off her movie's strengths. In February, she invited a crowd of journalists to the set in Los Angeles to meet director Bill Condon and various cast members.
"I didn't want to spend the whole year with the first sentence of every story being, 'Will "Dreamgirls" break the curse of "Rent" or "The Producers?" ' And the best way to take that off the table was to show off the goods," she explains.
She followed that up by taking 25 minutes of footage to Cannes, where the red-carpet arrival of Beyonce, Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Hudson got the media play of a bona-fide film premiere. "It turned into a gigantic event," she says. "Let me tell you, when Beyonce shows up, grown men fall to their knees. When I went out to dinner afterwards, I was already getting e-mails of stories posted on the Internet."
To introduce the film to younger audiences, DreamWorks has quietly spent close to $250,000 funding high school productions of the original play, paying for estate licensing fees. The press has also been wooed with care. Mindful of how "Munich" was walloped by the media last year after Steven Spielberg gave an exclusive peek to Time, Press showed "Dreamgirls" to everybody at the same time, staging screenings in 50 markets on Nov. 15. "I know you guys," she told me. "If you'd heard someone had seen it first, you'd be [upset]." Oprah got the first big cast interviews, giving the film her blessing on a Nov. 20 show. The stars are also on the January cover of Vanity Fair, while the notoriously press-shy Eddie Murphy even did a news conference with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.
"You can say things have been orchestrated," Press says. "But your campaign has to be organic too. When a movie is good, people want to talk about it, and when people are talking up your movie, that's something money can't buy."
How good are the odds that "Dreamgirls" will end up with an Oscar best picture victory? What follows is my annual early betting line assessing the chances of leading films.
"Dreamgirls." 4-1: A faithful adaptation of the 1981 stage play not-so-loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, this lavish Condon-directed all-black musical is handsome as entertainment can be, loaded with infectious music and accomplished performances, especially from supporting actress favorite Hudson, who earns the right to any comparisons with the role's originator, Jennifer Holliday. The film's craft will earn it a boatload of nominations. Its chances of a best picture victory depend on whether the academy, which has a soft spot for showbiz stories, will embrace a crowd-pleaser that isn't daring or original. In other words: Does the soul outweigh the schmaltz?
"The Queen." 6-1: Tony Blair's wife acidly remarks during the film, "In the end, all Labour prime ministers go gaga for the queen," a sentiment that could be said of academy voters who've embraced this Stephen Frears-directed film about Elizabeth II's battle to save the monarchy after the death of Princess Diana. Buoyed with great reviews and a classic best actress performance by Helen Mirren, the film has been a part of the best picture conversation from its first day in release. It will benefit from being the one most topical of the favorites with its knowing portrayal of backstage politics and tabloid-driven pop culture.
"The Departed." 9-1: No filmmaker has been a bigger victim of the academy's conservatism than Martin Scorsese, a five-time loser in the best director category (he wasn't even nominated for "Taxi Driver"). But at 64, the director has a serious best picture contender with this impressive genre vehicle that Variety's Todd McCarthy aptly dubbed a "bloody steak of a movie." Even though it's a remake of a popular Hong Kong thriller and viewed as a less-than-personal project, the film has showy performances and vintage Scorsese set pieces. Although its ending, which features a gory series of killings, has been too much for some squeamish academy types, they may still prefer to honor the filmmaker, not the film.