Early Oscar Talk Shifts Studio Marketing Into High Gear

By CONOR DOUGHERTY
Staff Reporter

A half-dozen films are emerging as front-runners in this year's Oscar race a contest fueled by millions of dollars in studio money that has launched marketing campaigns to get noticed by critics, the public, and most importantly the 5,607 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Generating the most attention so far are "About Schmidt," "Gangs of New York," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "The Hours" and "Chicago."

As these features roll out in the next two weeks, studio marketing departments will gauge box office results and general buzz. To be eligible for Oscar consideration, a movie must be released in Los Angeles by Dec. 31 for at least a one-week run.

"The studios might push some more than others because of who is in it, how much it costs or how they like the movie," said Rob Fried, a film producer and Academy member. "But they're basically going to respond to the market more than they are going to try and control the market."

"Gangs," "Chicago" and "The Hours" were all produced by Miramax Film Corp., which has garnered a reputation as a fierce Oscar competitor. ("The Hours" was a co-production with Paramount Pictures.)

With a reported $100 million budget, "Gangs," which will be released on Christmas, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an Irish immigrant in New York during the Civil War. Early handicappers point out that director Martin Scorsese, who has never won an Oscar, could be a sympathetic favorite among Academy members.

Capitalizing on success

Another big competitor will be New Line Cinema, which is releasing "The Two Towers" and "About Schmidt." "The Two Towers" could capitalize on the success of its prequel, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," which last year received 13 nominations and won four Oscars.

"About Schmidt," stars Jack Nicholson as a Nebraska actuary who hits the road after discovering his life has no meaning. Nicholson, who has been nominated for 12 Oscars and has one three, is considered a front-runner for best actor.

Studios are routinely mum on how much they spend on their Oscar campaigns, but industry sources estimate that costs can go as high as $30 million, such as for last year's best picture winner, "A Beautiful Mind."

Industry sources estimate it costs $50,000 just to design an Oscar campaign for a film, and that an Oscar consultant costs another $50,000 or so. Copying and mailing a film to the Academy members is another $80,000, and screenings usually run $1,500 each. A two-page color advertisement in Variety costs around $60,000, sources said, and some of the biggest movies will grab as many as 100 ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

A look at the nomination process shows how variable the costs can be. First, the studios hire an Oscar consultant to promote certain films. As early as summer, staff members make sure that their Academy database is up to date and determine if members prefer copies in cassette or DVD format. The movies are sent out and Academy screenings are coordinated throughout the end of the year and into the next.

Smaller competitors, unable to compete with the majors, end up using less expensive tactics to get their films noticed.

"The most important thing is not buying ads in Variety, it's getting your movie seen," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films. "You need to do your mailings because they can't vote if they haven't seen it, you need to have a lot of industry screenings and you need to keep your talent in the public eye."

Lions Gate, which produced "Monster's Ball," in which Halle Berry received a Best Actress Oscar, is shopping around another hopeful, Maggie Gyllenhaal of "Secretary."

Promoting actors

Another strategy, especially for smaller films, is to release the film in just a few theaters at the end of the year. Last year, Lions Gate released "Monster's Ball" the day after Christmas on just six screens in New York and Los Angeles, but just in time to be eligible for a nomination. The number of screens was gradually increased to about 50 by the end of January, and then the week before the nominations were announced it increased to over 400 screens. The weekend after Berry won, the film went to about 900 screens.

Smaller films like "Monster's Ball" have much to gain from an Oscar nomination, and a similar strategy will likely be used on New Line's "About Schmidt," which opened in limited release last week.

The Academy has its own set of rules to level the playing field for competing films. For instance, studios are not allowed to launch e-mail or telemarketing campaigns, nor may they include extolling remarks in literature distributed to members. Receptions and celebrity appearances are not permitted before or after a screening.

Ric Robertson, executive administrator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said that if a company breaks the rules, he is sure to hear about it from a competitor. "The industry polices itself pretty efficiently," he said.

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