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The rules of engagement

The happy ending? A win on Oscar night. Here's a plot outline.

November 01, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

WITH the possible exception of the Oscar-winning "My Cousin Vinny," it's almost impossible to be nominated for -- let alone collect -- an Academy Award without a quality effort. But behind every honored movie or performance is an equally (if not more) inspired campaign.

Those awards efforts have their own set of rules. Ignore them at your peril. Follow them and enjoy the Governor's Ball.

Hone your strategy

1. If "Crash," last year's winner, was to get past "Brokeback Mountain," it needed first to reduce the best picture battle to a two-horse race. "We thought we had the better movie, and the one that affected people more," says Tom Ortenberg, president for theatrical films at Lionsgate. "We needed to win something -- but where was that breakthrough going to be?"

"Crash" was blanked in December's best picture nominations for the Golden Globe awards and had fared poorly in November's nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards. But the race-relations ensemble drama still enjoyed strong support from actors. So Lionsgate decided "Crash's" last, best place to make its Oscar stand was in the Screen Actors Guild awards. At a cost of about $250,000, Lionsgate sent 110,000 "Crash" DVDs to the entire SAG membership. "It was a big idea," Ortenberg says of the mass mailing. "No one had done it before." They'll do it now: SAG gave its top prize to "Crash" in late January. Even though SAG's best ensemble award is not a good predictor of best picture winners, the field had been reduced to two, and "Crash" was on its way.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar campaigns: An article on Oscar campaign strategies in the Nov. 1 issue of The Envelope misspelled Universal Pictures Oscar consultant Tony Angellotti's last name as Angelotti.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 15, 2006 Home Edition Special Section Part S Page 3 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar campaigns -- An article on Oscar campaign strategies in the Nov. 1 issue of The Envelope misspelled Universal Pictures Oscar consultant Tony Angellotti's last name as Angelotti.

Let film speak for itself

2. When a film has even a glimmer of a chance at an Academy Award, its stars and makers spread through Hollywood like precinct walkers in a close election. Roman Polanski, the fugitive director of 2002's "The Pianist," couldn't come to the United States without being arrested, and Adrien Brody was mostly unknown. Worse still, Oscar heavyweight Miramax had three best picture contenders: "Chicago," "Gangs of New York" and "The Hours." "It was a very difficult year," says Robert Benmussa, one of "The Pianist's" producers. "Miramax was very, very aggressive. It was impossible to compete with them on spending. And no one knew anything about our movie."

But "The Pianist" played incredibly well, its Holocaust story resonating with the academy's voters. And Focus Features pushed all voters to see the film in theaters, rather than on DVD. "That wasn't just for technical reasons," Benmussa says. "It was for emotional reasons." In what Benmussa says was an orchestrated smear campaign, the 1977 grand jury transcript of Polanski's unlawful sex with a minor case surfaced in the middle of the Oscar race.

But then Polanski's victim spoke out to say the filmmaker's past conduct should have no bearing on his film. Focus even cut new "Pianist" spots to humanize Polanski, a Holocaust survivor.

"At some point," Benmussa says, the controversy "worked to our advantage." In three upsets, "The Pianist" won the directing, adapted screenplay and actor Oscars.

Stand up to the big guys

3. "Shakespeare in Love" was deeply appreciated, but the 1998 romantic comedy stood in the shadows of "Saving Private Ryan," which felt like a more momentous (meaning: best picture) undertaking. But Miramax Films wasn't cowed by DreamWorks or Steven Spielberg, and launched one of the great come-from-behind best picture campaigns in Oscar history.

"We stood in the ring for the first time, and went toe-to-toe and spent equally with everybody else," says Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein.

The studio quickly settled on a "Shakespeare" campaign theme. "It's a movie about art, and how art is created," Weinstein says. "I don't know if there had been a movie about the creative process in a long time. When Charlton Heston told me he had voted for us, I knew we had a chance."

No money, no excuse

4. Soon after Vestron Pictures released 1987's "Anna," the independent distributor closed its doors. When Oscar season rolled around, the movie was out of theaters and there was no money to strike new prints or manufacture videocassettes.

"It was a campaign for a picture that virtually didn't exist," says Dale Olson, a publicist who represented "Anna's" star, Sally Kirkland. "We didn't have anything." Except desire. Olson gathered enough money to make 50 "Anna" videocassettes and hosted a cocktail party for the film (Olson did the cooking himself). Among the 100 or so actors (Shelley Winters, Lainie Kazan, Elliott Gould) and media who attended, Olson distributed the 50 cassettes, with one directive.

"They had to look at it immediately, and either return it or give it to another academy member," Olson says. Slowly but surely, "Anna" spread across Hollywood and emerged out of anonymity; the underdog campaign itself became news. Kirkland went everywhere and worked tirelessly, sending every Golden Globe voter a handwritten note (she won the Globe for best dramatic actress).

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