Hd -- Oscar

Sniping

In the often silly world of show business, a post-Oscar controversy is raging that has eclipsed all the earlier hand-wringing over director Elia Kazan. It is over the money spent by Miramax to persuade Academy members to vote for "Shakespeare in Love" as best picture as well as Roberto Benigni for best actor in "Life is Beautiful."

The morning after the Oscar ceremony, movie executives all over town were bemoaning the fact that the process of choosing Academy Award winners was starting to resemble a political campaign, with millions of advertising and promotional dollars spent in the weeks, even months, leading up to the vote. Miramax, which specializes in higher-brow films accessible to middle-brow tastes (sort of), has become a master at such campaigns, which include saturation ads in the trades, along with a ready supply of videocassettes for home viewing.

The obvious question is whether the Miramax effort for "Shakespeare in Love," which reportedly cost close to $15 million, made a difference. There is no way to answer that, though it's reasonable to assume that any saturation ad campaign whether it involves soap suds or movie stars will have some impact, even if subliminal.

The Miramax push really gained credence, however, on the basis of the movie's glowing reviews and favorable word-of-mouth. "Life is Beautiful" received similar buzz, no doubt reinforced by the hyper-kinetic Benigni (who seems constitutionally incapable of simply walking up to a stage, receiving an award, and then sitting down). As folks like Steve Forbes and Al Checchi have discovered, money alone can't turn you into a winner. You need the people on your side. Same is true for movies.

Also helping "Shakespeare in Love" is that it came out in December, the favored month for Oscar prospects, compared with the other hot contender, Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," which was released five months earlier the equivalent of several lifetimes, given today's attention spans.

It was Spielberg's presence that probably escalated the whining. He is, after all, a revered storyteller and to many in the business, "Saving Private Ryan" was just the kind of powerful message film worthy to be selected best picture. Squared off against this Hollywood royal was Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein, a large, rumpled, cigarette-smoking New Yorker (he doesn't even live in L.A.!) who has a tendency to alienate directors by micro-managing (and editing) the films he produces. It's worth pondering whether there would have been such a ruckus were Weinstein more of a laid back and slimmed down Malibu kind of guy.

As the week wore on, there were various proposals for campaign reform somehow limiting the amount of money studios can spend to push their Oscar candidates. This is a ridiculous idea for any number of logistical reasons: how would it be enforced, and how do you define an Oscar-related promotion? More important, this is a free marketplace, and businesses should be allowed to promote their wares any way they see fit. If Miramax deems that a best-picture Oscar is worth $15 million in extra marketing costs or $50 million for that matter it's their decision and their money.

It's a good bet that as tempers cool in the weeks and months ahead, such a view will prevail as studio heads prepare to up their promotional antes for next year's fun and games.

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