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It's a lot to juggle

November 11, 2009|Christy Grosz

The industry outcry was sharp when the number of best picture Oscar nominees for 2009 jumped from five to 10 in June. It will dilute the distinction of being nominated, the creative side grumped. It will mean skyrocketing campaign budgets, the business side griped. But now that the dust has settled, even the most jaded insiders admit that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to do something to shake up the ever-more predictable award show.

And now that it has, the race is on.

The academy's move could mean a broader range of genres and film budgets in the best picture category -- precisely the result for which the organization's board of governors is hoping.

"As much as people talk about how the academy thinks, the academy is not one person, not one brain," says award campaign strategist Cynthia Swartz, who also served as publicity chief at Harvey Weinstein's Miramax imprint, heading up the award push for such films as "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love." "With 10 slots, it allows for an even greater range of taste. I think you could see everything from documentaries to some more commercial pictures. When studios make a really satisfying, terrific, smart movie, the academy always pays attention."

But with last year's perceived snub of "The Dark Knight" still fresh in many a fanboy's memory, pundits aren't counting on the 10 slots to make room for commercially successful films. Certainly several have been on people's lips as the "new 'Dark Knight' contender," with Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" rising to the top of a list that also includes James Cameron's "Avatar" and J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek." Still, there's no guaranteed slot for such mainstream movies.

"If the conceit is that a wider array of consumer-friendly films will make the cut, that remains to be seen," says a top award season strategist. "What it might do in the interim is encourage studios with those kinds of films to vie for it. I think the academy did it to show ABC that they're willing to take steps to do something to boost telecast ratings."

"We all want the academy to succeed," says longtime strategist Tony Angellotti, who's currently working on the animated "Up," the Disney/Pixar film that many insiders believe could now have the shot at the best picture award that its 2008 cousin, "Wall-E," didn't get. If "Up" does get a nod with this wider field, it would become the first animated film to do so since the separate animation category was created eight years ago. "We want to keep [the academy] going," Angellotti says, "we want it to be strong. But with respect to ratings, it's a difficult fix."

Even though this year's ceremony promises to have twice as many films vying for the last award of the evening, many point out that having 10 slots doesn't mean everyone has twice as many chances to earn a nomination.

"The biggest change associated with the increase in slots for best picture is probably the expectations of filmmakers," says One Way Out Media's Tom Ortenberg, who led the campaign for 2005 best picture winner "Crash" when he was at Lionsgate.

Weinstein, who famously upset the 1998 awards with a hard-charging, multimillion-dollar best picture campaign for "Shakespeare in Love," will certainly have high demands this year with four films from the Weinstein Co. positioned for the top race -- "The Road," "Inglourious Basterds," "A Single Man" and "Nine," a film few have seen but most are eagerly anticipating. But it's unlikely the financially strapped Weinstein Co. will be able to finance a similar campaign blitz of special events and print and television ads four times over.

So while strategists will be spending more time managing clients' expectations -- and shrinking budgets -- it's still all about the movie, many say. "It's about positioning your movie and getting as many award season voters [as possible] to see your movie," Ortenberg says. "The 10 slots don't really change that."

Swartz agrees. "An awards campaign is about getting people to see the movie, make them feel like they have to see it before they vote and also giving a sense that it's worthy."

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