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'Must-see' ads at Oscars?

THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

October 10, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

FOR THE first time ever, the motion picture academy will allow studios to run movie ads during the Oscar telecast. Why? Take a wild guess. With the economy in shambles and everyone pulling back on advertising commitments everywhere, the Oscars can't be so choosy anymore. It doesn't help that the Academy Awards' TV ratings have been in a steady downhill slide in recent years, leaving them with a loyal but very, very old audience that delivers to advertisers only a small fraction of the kind of viewership they get from a Big Event like the Super Bowl.

The academy is retaining some of its old fuddy-duddy rules, limiting ads to one per studio and prohibiting movies that are up for awards from being advertised.

Still, the academy made one shrewd move, requiring studios to deliver an ad that hasn't run anywhere else. This creates the possibility that the ads themselves could become an event. The academy is hurt by its awards show's airing six or so weeks after the Super Bowl, which remains the launching pad for the big summer films and male-oriented action pictures.

But the Oscars, which will air Feb. 22, could become an advertising focal point for vaguely adult-oriented films that have some aspiration to quality. You wouldn't bother running an ad for "The A-Team" or "Fast & Furious," but you might be tempted to run ads for Nora Ephron's "Julie and Julia" or Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," just two of the films that could benefit from an Oscar ad launch. Judging from the current crop of Oscar contenders coming our way, the 2009 telecast may reach a smaller audience than ever before.

But at least this increases the odds that someone might be talking about the Oscars at the water cooler the next day, even if they're just intrigued by the cool ad they saw for the new "Star Trek" movie. Hope springs eternal!

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Evading critics, lacking viewers

David Zucker, the funny man behind the not-so-funny "An American Carol," can't blame liberal film critics for the lackluster opening weekend for his conservative satire of Michael Moore, gays, Muslims and a variety of other favorite conservative targets.

As I recently reported, Zucker and Vivendi Entertainment, the new distributor that released his movie, made the boneheaded move of refus- ing to screen the film for critics, under the paranoid delusion that liberal critics wouldn't give the film a fair shake because it made fun of Moore and other lefty icons. But even without any reviews poisoning the well, the film, which opened Oct. 3 on 1,640 screens, only managed to take in $3.8 million over the weekend, giving it an underwhelming $2,325 per-screen average.

How bad is that? Even such recent losers as Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" and "Disaster Movie" had better per-screen averages in their opening weekends. Zucker can't pin the blame on the film's not being able to compete with bigger studio releases, which presumably had heftier marketing support. "Fireproof," the faith-based firefighter drama, had double "Carol's" per-screen average in its second weekend of release, even though it is being distributed by the tiny Samuel Goldwyn Co.

To add insult to injury, "An American Carol" even got bad reviews from -- gasp! -- the New York Post and the Washington Times, two bastions of the conservative revolution. The New York Post's Lou Lumenick railed against the film's toilet humor and fat jokes, blasted a "spectacularly tasteless scene" in which George Washington (played by Jon Voight) gives Moore a tour of the World Trade Center rubble, and concludes that even Moore's "Sicko" is "far funnier than anything in this desperately laughless farce." The Washington Times wasn't much better, saying that "we're asked to chuckle at routine slapstick far beneath Zucker's best work" that is "all handled with the subtlety of an Ann Coulter column."

What's the lesson here? I'd be the first to agree that there are lots of liberal sacred cows. But Zucker & Co. bought into the conservative myth that the country is so split by a partisan divide that liberal critics couldn't possibly appreciate a funny conservative movie. Trust me, critics see so few funny movies that they are always dying for a good comedy to champion. This wasn't the one. By refusing to show the movie to the media beforehand, Zucker and Universal lost the chance to get a lot of free exposure for the film, especially with the politically themed film opening a month before a hotly contested presidential election.

Vivendi should study the shrewd marketing plan Lionsgate had for "Religulous," the Bill Maher religious satire that opened last week. It made almost as much money as "Carol," even though it was on only one-third as many screens. Lionsgate screened the movie everywhere before it opened, embracing its controversial topic. What "American Carol" needed more than good reviews was publicity, but by refusing to show it to the press ahead of time, Zucker and Vivendi didn't get either.

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patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

This article and others about movies and pop culture can be found on the Big Picture blog at latimes.com/bigpicture.

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