Ben Affleck directs and stars in "Argo." (Warner Bros. )
Forget about the price of gasoline: The real skyrocketing expense this year is the Oscar race.
With two deep-pocketed studios locked into one of the closest best picture duels in recent memory and Academy Award voting extended by two weeks, the battle between "Argo" and "Lincoln" has sparked what several Hollywood executives say is the costliest campaign on record.
"It's like an arms race this year," said Jim Burke, a producer on last year's best picture nominee "The Descendants."
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The best picture contest recently has been dominated by independent productions such as "The Hurt Locker" and "The Artist" that couldn't easily throw money around as if it were confetti. But in the current Oscar race, Warner Bros.' "Argo" and the Walt Disney Co.'s "Lincoln" are each spending an estimated $10 million and potentially much more touting their film's chances, up to double what a costly campaign has totaled in years past.
Other studios are only a little less profligate: Universal Studios ("Les Misérables"), 20th Century Fox ("Life of Pi") and Sony Pictures ("Zero Dark Thirty") all have spent lavishly on their "For Your Consideration" promotions.
The money can be well spent: A best picture win can bring in millions more at the box office, and help sell a ton more DVDs. What's more, Oscar hardware can help woo image-conscious filmmakers into a studio's fold. Disney, the distributor of "Lincoln," has never won a best picture statuette, and Warner Bros. has a substantial interest in making "Argo" director Ben Affleck and producer George Clooney feel a lot of love.
Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has curtailed the number of post-nomination screenings, parties and promotional email blasts, it has no power over paid advertising and related campaign expenses.
The spending blizzard includes covers in Hollywood's trade newspapers (a single-page Variety cover can cost as much as $80,000), 30-minute TV spots highlighting a film's bona fides (local broadcast time for recent half-hour "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Silver Linings Playbook" ads can cost more than $100,000) and first-class air travel, limousines and hotels for filmmakers skipping around the globe to woo awards voters and collect lesser trophies ("Lincoln" star Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't fly coach and stay at the local EconoLodge).
Outdoor "wallscape" advertising on buildings in prime real-estate locales can run more than $200,000, including production and installation costs. And then there are the high-end parties and receptions for the nominees, which, if held at tony establishments like the Beverly Hills Hotel, can set studios back $100,000 per event.
Awards-season bookkeeping, like the rest of Hollywood accounting, is an amorphous art form, which makes precise expenses hard to pinpoint. A blurry line separates the spending on a movie's theatrical and DVD releases with its Oscar-season efforts.
Initial awards budgets, said veteran Academy Awards consultant Tony Angelotti, are typically amended numerous times with little liability over final costs. "If you spend $10 million and don't win any Oscars, no one really wants to see that final figure," Angelotti said.
"I know it's substantial," Elizabeth Gabler, whose Fox 2000 made "Life of Pi," said of the awards promotions spending for director Ang Lee's film. "I know it's as much as we've ever spent. We felt it was our responsibility to support the film in this way."
The expenditures begin months before Tuesday's voting deadline by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Studios start targeting various precursor awards groups such as critics organizations and show business guilds in the fall, often wooing votes with an array of gifts.
This year, members of the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. received four different lavish "Lincoln" books (including one devoted to Civil War recipes) as well as a special DVD that arrived in an inlaid, numbered box. After the 250-plus member group gave Spielberg's film a record 13 nominations, each voter received a personally signed thank-you note from the director on his letterhead stationery. Universal sent every BFCA voter an iPod Shuffle (retail price: $50) pre-loaded with the songs from "Les Misérables."
"I remember thinking, in terms of gifts, this is a bit much," says Access Hollywood film critic Scott Mantz, a BFCA member. "In the 22 years I've been covering awards seasons, I've never seen anything quite like it. When you open up the mail and find a 'Les Miz' iPod, you know we're not in a recession anymore."
Universal said that its "Les Misérables" campaign, which is all but certain to bring a supporting actress Oscar to costar Anne Hathaway, cost less than $10 million.