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You thought political campaigns were tough

February 19, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

You know it's a real Oscar race when every campaign has a slogan. Everyone loves "The Queen." Get on the bus for "Little Miss Sunshine." No film moved you more than "Babel." "The Departed" is Martin Scorsese at his best. "Letters From Iwo Jima" was directed by Clint Eastwood, which, although technically not a catchphrase, is pretty much shorthand for Oscar gold these days.

With no clear best picture frontrunner this year -- bets seesaw between "The Departed" and "Little Miss Sunshine" -- the final weeks before the Academy Awards have been passing in a blizzard of print and TV ads, screeners, coffee-table books, tchotchkes and celebratory cocktail parties. Television appearances by nominees peaked the week after ballots went out on Jan. 31, when, conventional wisdom has it, most academy members do their voting. But print ads, especially for best picture contenders, will remain at a near hysterical pitch until Tuesday's voting deadline.

"If there were a 200-pound gorilla in the race, things would be tapering off," says longtime strategist Michelle Robertson. "But this year, everyone has a ray of hope, so some are going to the bitter end."

These frantic final days are the culmination of high-priced, highly calibrated battle plans that began in June or July. That's when the consultants are hired, when the in-house publicists start drawing up their budgets, when the films are screened and award potential first discussed.

"Sometimes, we're talking about Oscars at Cannes," says Amanda Lundberg, founding partner of the public-relations firm 42West and former head of publicity at Miramax. "And that's in May."

Lundberg and Robertson are just two among a phalanx of people in Hollywood and New York who help studios and filmmakers win awards. The work they do has been the subject of controversy for years. There are virtually as many complaints about campaign spending for the Oscars, which can go as high as $15 million for a single film, as there are for any presidential race.

This year, the academy once again shortened the number of days between the announcement of the nominations and the awards ceremony in an effort to curtail spending.

Industry insiders have various opinions about the effectiveness -- this year may be the shortest Oscar season yet, but it's arguably the most intense -- or necessity of the changes. "It assumes you can somehow create a level playing field," says one strategist. "And that's just impossible."

Meanwhile, there's the Internet, land of no rules, which has become the latest campaigning frontier. "I don't think academy members read blogs," publicist Eddie Michaels says. "But morning-radio DJs go to the Internet for a lot of their content. And radio's an important outlet."

Michaels, who has done Oscar work for many years, sees a shift in the campaigns of the last few years.

"There's much more of a street-team mentality, of generating buzz among young consumers," he says. "It doesn't matter if they are academy voters or not."

Before a film is distributed, or, as in the case of "Dreamgirls," before it's even finished, publicists and strategists are imagining the Oscar campaign. The lead male is no good, but the female lead is great, so is this a performance award winner or is there a best picture possibility? If it's the latter, what are some of the other categories to go after -- director, probably screenplay. What else? Cinematography? Costumes?

"You need below-the-line categories to support a best picture nomination," Robertson says. "And so, the morning of the nominations, you're [looking] at the nominations beyond those with the bells and whistles to tell you if you really have a chance."

Robertson, whose firm, MRC, is a consultant on Warner Bros. campaigns this year, has worked the Oscar race for more than 10 years. She was at Fox Searchlight when "The Full Monty" went from indie darling to awards contender. To this day, she has her lucky spot outside the academy on the morning nominations are announced -- the place she was standing when she heard that "The Full Monty" was up for best picture, director, screenplay and music.

When discussing Oscar campaigns, she and other publicists and industry watchers say the same thing: There is no blueprint, template or secret potion for an awards campaign. The best-laid plans of "All the King's Men" (widely considered a multiple-awards candidate before its release last summer) can be shredded by critics or the box office, while small films like "Crash" or "Boys Don't Cry" chug their way to victory.

"It's like the movies themselves," says Tony Angellotti, a longtime publicist for Universal. "You never really know what's going to work or not. You don't know if a film works until you put it in front of people."

Sometimes, not even then -- the New York academy screening of best picture shutout "Dreamgirls" was the most enthusiastic in memory, while the one for "Capote," which got a best picture nomination and a best actor win, was tepid.

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