Faced with the most wide-open Oscar contest in recent history, the major Hollywood studios are quietly gearing up to spend what will likely be a record amount to publicize their top contenders.

"The studios will spend anything from $300,000 to $1.5 million or more (per picture), depending on the movie," said Robert Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures and one of the most respected marketing gurus in Hollywood. "Because there are more titles in the running, the aggregate expenditure will probably be even more than it has been before."

Marketing consultant Tony Angellotti reported that, "We are seeing across-the-board campaigning at almost every studio, whereas, in years past, oftentimes the contenders were identified earlier on, so the studios didn't feel the same need to compete."

The only other time in recent history that such fierce pre-Oscar competition erupted was in 1999, when two of Hollywood's most powerful corporate players, DreamWorks SKG and Miramax Films, went mano-a-mano in the most ferocious marketing blitz ever seen at Oscar-time. That year, those studios each spent millions of dollars to promote their respective Academy Awards frontrunner, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Shakespeare in Love."

As for this year, nobody will know for sure which pictures are the real contenders until precisely 38 seconds after 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 13, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveils its nominees. But thanks to the Golden Globes (held Jan. 21) often a reliable litmus test for the Oscars insiders are eyeing several films as frontrunners.

Among them: "Gladiator," "Almost Famous," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Cast Away," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," "Quills," "Billy Elliot," "Chocolat" and "You Can Count On Me."

The budgets of these films vary enormously, from the $1.2 million brother-and-sister drama "You Can Count On Me" to the $100 million-plus Roman epic "Gladiator." But each stands to reap gigantic benefits from a "Best Picture" Oscar.

Over the past decade, a Best Picture nod has added a staggering $150 million to the average winner's worldwide box-office gross, according to Daily Variety. Even nominations help: "Ryan" earned $4 million the first weekend it was re-released following its Oscar nominations. "Shakespeare," which was still in movie theaters at the time, saw its box-office gross jump 100 percent the day after the nominations were announced.

Because of this, every studio with a picture in the running wants to maximize its investment even if that also means beefing up its expenditure. In most cases, it is impossible to quantify just how much they will spend because the Oscar campaign is inseparable from a movie's regular advertising campaign.

So where does the money go?

Much of it is spent on blanketing both the trade press (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) and leading consumer publications with advertisements. These can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars for an inside page in the trades to $80,000-$90,000 for a two-page spread in the Los Angeles Times or The New York Times (Hollywood's daily newspapers of choice), and even more for the ultra-expensive New York Times Sunday edition.

"I just looked at the New York Times and there was a double-truck (two-page ad) for (the Sony Pictures Classics film) 'Pollock,'" observed one senior studio marketing executive. "That's probably more than the cost of the picture!"

Sony Pictures Classics alone will spend $600,000 or more on trade ads for "Crouching Tiger," according to informed sources.

At the same time, studios are sending DVDs or videotapes of their eligible films to the Academy's 5,722 voting members around the world, at an estimated cost of $9-$10 per tape including making the tape, packaging it and shipping it.

Just how the tape is packaged is strictly defined. The Academy's executive administrator, Ric Robertson, points out that for the past six years, his organization has imposed rules on what the studios can send to Academy members. Those rules go as far as defining the size and type of letter that can be included in packages, announcing screening schedules. And woes betide if a studio turns any of its so-called screenings into full-fledged parties.

"If there is an egregious violation, we subtract two or four tickets from the studio's allotment for the awards show," Robertson explains.

When that many tickets are taken out of the hands of top executives, who typically only receive 8 to 10 tickets per studio, "you'd be amazed at how quickly they respond."

While industry parties can range in price from $10,000 to $100,000 or more, the studios have found other ways of promoting their Oscar-contender pictures.

Masterful promotion

DreamWorks, which learned a painful lesson when "Saving Private Ryan" lost to "Shakespeare in Love," has mastered the art of promotion, as it showed last year with its Oscar-winner "American Beauty."

This time around, the studio launched a major reception for director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe when it unveiled the DVD release of "Gladiator" at the Academy on Nov. 30. It followed that with a special run of the movie in IMAX theaters.

Fox Searchlight Pictures, promoting its controversial "Quills," drew publicity and kudos when the film's writer (Doug Wright), director (Philip Kaufman) and star (Geoffrey Rush) attended a special screening to benefit the ACLU. Rush also appeared at a British Academy screening held in Los Angeles. (Many British Academy members also belong to our Academy.)

Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard said his strategy is aimed at just getting Academy members to see his studio's picture but that means special screenings in all sorts of unexpected places.

"We've held screenings in Hawaii and Aspen and Santa Fe for Academy members on vacation there, as well as hosting a fundraiser for the American Film Institute," he notes. "At the same time, more than ever before, all the studios are using radio spots and local television to push their movies."

In all these instances, the studios are following playbooks established by DreamWorks and Miramax two years ago, which, according to industry estimates, each spent from $800,000 to $3 million on their respective Oscar campaigns, before Miramax emerged the victor with its Elizabethan romance.

Back then, everyone expected "Ryan" to win the Best Picture prize and, following the "Shakespeare" upset, there was an outcry that Miramax had "bought" the Oscar with its campaign though Miramax executives argued they had spent less than DreamWorks.

Still, the Academy's Robertson is skeptical that even the most expensive campaign can really swing a voter. "I have never met anyone who would admit to being swayed by a bombardment of trade advertising," he said. "I think that argument is an insult to intelligent people."

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