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How to act in a crisis

February 15, 2009|John Horn

A successful Oscar campaign must include certain elements -- favorable reviews, standout performances and the correct alignment of numerous intangibles beyond any film or movie studio's control. But as recent history has proved, some Academy Award efforts also must rely upon something usually found around oil spills and tainted pharmaceuticals: crisis public-relations management.

To wit: this year's best picture front-runner, "Slumdog Millionaire," was recently accused of underpaying some of its youngest and poorest performers. The studio and filmmakers immediately rebutted the claims -- issuing statements, granting interviews and forwarding favorable press clips to Hollywood journalists -- and almost as soon as the negative stories came up, they disappeared.

Other Oscar hopefuls have been as skillful in deflecting controversy, but a few have not. Here's a look at some recent case studies in awards-season crisis PR:


'Crash' (2005)

Background: Writer-director Paul Haggis' race-relations drama about the intersecting lives of apparently unconnected Angelenos is nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.

Controversy: Critics and moviegoers are deeply split over the film's merits, but the real rift comes between financier Bob Yari and the Producers Guild of America and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Distributor Lionsgate struggles to keep the conversation focused on the film, rather than the schism.

Response: Just as Oscar balloting concludes, Yari sues the PGA and the academy, alleging they unfairly delisted him as one of "Crash's" producers. Fellow producer Cathy Schulman then sues Yari, claiming he failed to pay her more than $2 million in fees and bonuses.

Outcome: In one of the bigger surprises in best picture history, "Crash" takes the top Oscar, upsetting the favored "Brokeback Mountain."


'The Pianist' (2002)

Background: Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of Germany's occupation of Poland, directs this drama about a Jewish musician's (Adrien Brody) survival in Warsaw during World War II. It is nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture and director.

Controversy: In the middle of the Oscar race, a decades-old grand jury transcript of Polanski's statutory rape case surfaces on the Internet. A debate rages: Should Polanski's crime count against "The Pianist" or should the film be judged on its merits alone, as his victim urges?

Response: Polanski does very little in support of the movie and does not rebut criticism over his plea agreement of having sex with a minor and leaving the country before his sentencing.

Outcome: In an upset win, Polanski, who can't attend the ceremony because he faces arrest, is named best director, beating Rob Marshall, whose "Chicago" wins the best picture prize. Brody collects the best actor award.


'A Beautiful Mind' (2001)

Background: Director Ron Howard's adaptation of the biography of the distinguished and mentally ill mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe) is nominated for eight Oscars, including best director and picture.

Controversy: Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's adaptation of Sylvia Nasar's book is criticized for sugarcoating Nash's life (including his philandering and anti-Semitism) and eliminating mention of his homosexuality. Crowe doesn't help by assailing a British awards show producer who cuts off the actor's reading of a poem.

Response: Universal Pictures, which made it clear a year before the film's release that it was a pseudo-biography, convenes daily "war room" meetings to respond to the criticism, hiring a crisis public relations firm. Crowe apologizes.

Outcome: The film wins four Academy Awards, including best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Crowe loses to "Training Day's" Denzel Washington.


'The Hurricane' (1999)

Background: Director Norman Jewison and producer-writer Armyan Bernstein adapt several books about boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's imprisonment on a trumped-up murder charge. Denzel Washington is nominated for best actor.

Controversy: Positioned as a "triumphant true story," the film is criticized by journalists for several fabrications, including the creation of a racist police detective.

Response: The filmmakers, led by Bernstein, try to rebut the charges, but the counterattack is slow to start, somewhat disorganized and ineffective.

Outcome: Once assumed to be an Oscar favorite for a number of awards, including best picture, "Hurricane" receives but one nomination. Washington loses to "American Beauty's" Kevin Spacey.


'The Insider' (1999)

Background: Director Michael Mann's film follows a tobacco researcher (Russell Crowe) determined to blow the whistle on the deceptions of cigarette makers. The movie is nominated for seven Oscars, including picture, director and actor.

Controversy: The filmmakers assumed tobacco companies would attack "The Insider," but journalists -- including the Wall Street Journal and "60 Minutes" star Mike Wallace -- are equally outspoken, denouncing the film's accuracy.

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