Shhh! Oscar contenders get silent treatment

Fri Nov 30, 2007 5:10pm EST
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By Steven Zeitchik

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - If you think you've heard every Oscar trick in the book, try this one on: The newest way to promote a movie to voters might be not to promote it at all.

When Focus Features opens its awards-season contender "Atonement" in limited release next Friday, it will be the latest experiment in what might be called the anti-hype movement.

Director Joe Wright's movie about forbidden love during World War II had a splashy debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Critics duly fawned and mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly described the "great fanfare" of its premiere.

But after the festival, Universal Studios' specialty division did the unexpected: It went quiet, or "hid the film" in the company's parlance. Executives limited advance screenings, and publicists courted only select media.

"We said, 'This movie is so powerful, we don't want to hype it and let anyone else define it for us.' We just wanted it to speak for itself," Focus president James Schamus said.

Consider it playing against hype. The strategy isn't the typical false humility of awards season but an effort to manage expectations, maximize dwindling marketing budgets and prevent Oscar chances from dying in the box office bloodbath that claims a new specialty-picture victim almost every week.

Trade ads, guild screenings and other trappings of awards season still are a fixture of campaigning, of course. But in the quantity and quality of promotion, these campaigns take a different tack. Media screenings are limited, trade and televisions ads start later, campaigns go less specific.

BUZZ BACKFIRES   Continued...