Late last August, a full six months before the announcement of Academy Award nominees, the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics sat in a war room in New York, setting their strategy for the Oscars.

As war rooms go, this one wasn't much, just a modest conference area at the studio's Madison Avenue headquarters. Joining Michael Barker and Tom Bernard was the entire advertising staff: two people, a fraction of the ad departments at Sony Pictures Entertainment's other film divisions, TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures.

"You start early," Barker said. "We wanted to get our ads into the Hollywood trade papers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. We wanted to determine what theaters we would open our films in in New York and Los Angeles. We know that Academy members like to go to certain theaters, like the ones around Lincoln Center and the Westside Pavilion and the Royale in Los Angeles. We always keep in mind the audience of academy members."

For decades, the boutique world inhabited by Sony Classics was the minor leagues when it came to box-office titans and Academy Awards nominees, but this niche has seen some dramatic changes.

In 1996, Miramax Films' "The English Patient" was named best picture by the movie academy. The following year, Fox Searchlight Pictures put out "The Full Monty," a British film that cost less than $6 million to make and generated $202 million in worldwide box office receipts.

Then came last year, when Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" beat out Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" as best picture.

This year, everybody is taking the boutiques a lot more seriously. And the battle to churn out quality Oscar contenders has grown even more intense though Miramax remains the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to marketing.

"We don't spend as much as they do and we don't think we have to spend as much as they do," Barker said. "And I think it would be bad for us to get into a vicious circle of competition like that."

Seven-year-old Sony Classics, which operates independently of Sony's other film divisions, has seen its share of successes. Last year, Fernanda Montenegro was nominated for an Oscar for best actress in Sony's "Central Station," which itself received a best foreign film nomination. "Indochine," which starred Catherine Deneuve, won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1992, and "Howard's End," won Oscars for best actress (Emma Thompson), best adapted screenplay, and best art direction that same year.

In their war room last summer, Barker and Bernard began scrutinizing the lineup, looking for different categories to target for the Oscars. Their best bet appeared to be "All About Mother," directed by Spain's Pedro Almodovar and starring Cecilia Roth.

Barker and Bernard believed "All About Mother" had a shot at best foreign film, and possibly best picture. They also thought Roth might get a nomination for best actress.

Going down their list, the two executives liked Ed Harris for best actor for "The Third Miracle." They thought David Mamet, who directed the British period film "The Winslow Boy," could get a nomination for best director and best screenplay.

They also believed that Sean Penn and Samantha Morton might get acting nods for Woody Allen's comedy, "The Sweet and Lowdown," and that "The Emperor and the Assassin," an epic drama about China's first emperor, might have a chance for art director, production designer and costume designer.

After picking their slate, Barker and Bernard created a marketing budget for each film. They declined to specify exact costs, but Barker said they will spend, per film, between "mid-six figures and low-six figures."

At their initial meeting, much of the immediate attention focused on creating more buzz for the Sony Classics lineup. That meant, among other things, screening their films at the Toronto and Telluride film feastivals.

But marketing a potential Oscar nominee still comes down to the tried-and-true. That means advertising in the Hollywood trade papers' special Oscar issues as well as in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, which are read by many academy members. For members who live in Europe, ads were planned in selected overseas papers.

The two executives also prepared to send out videocassettes of their films to academy members, another common practice. For those members who prefer seeing a film on a large screen, the Sony Classics executives devised a schedule of special screenings.

"You execute your plan and then you adapt," Barker said. "If you look at the films that don't make the final five, it's usually because not enough academy members saw the film."

Serendipity plays a role in many of these Oscar campaigns. "All About My Mother" didn't win the best film award at the Cannes Film Festival in May, much to the annoyance of many critics, especially those from the United States. In its wrap-up of the festival, Time's international edition predicted the film could be named the best picture of the year.

"This helped us in formulating our plan," Barker said. "There was an uproar and a lot of the press said the film deserved the festival's best picture award. We got a lot of goodwill, and this helped the film."

More recently, Time's Dec. 20 edition named "All About Mother" the best film of the year. On Dec. 12, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named the movie best foreign film, echoing the National Board of Review's selection on Dec. 8. "Mother" has developed some buzz.

Getting mainstream press coverage is a key part of movie marketing. Usually, this comes by offering the stars for interviews. The Internet is also becoming important. Sony's films all have their own sites, which include screening information for academy members.

Then there is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose upcoming Golden Globe Awards has become an important marketing tool for all the studios. Sony is currently targeting screenings, interviews and videocassettes for HFPA members.

"They are a real harbinger for academy members," Barker said, adding that a Spanish film like "All About Mother" could be at a disadvantage because the foreign press tends to avoid foreign films.

Just how well Sony Classics and its rivals do will be unveiled at 5 a.m. Feb. 15, when the Oscar nominations are announced. "You either cry or celebrate, and then start your strategy for the next round: the Oscars," Barker said.

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