January 14, 2010 / 6:20 PM / 9 years ago

Second-guessing studios' Oscar campaigns

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When Summit Entertainment sent out the DVD of “The Hurt Locker” to awards voters, it did so in early December, even though the critically acclaimed war drama had been released theatrically in late June. This was one of numerous decisions that will now impact the movie’s Oscar chances.

Large Oscar statues are seen before getting a fresh coat of paint by scenic artists near Los Angeles October 19, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Was Summit right?

“There is this sort of misperception in the media that we sent out our DVDs late,” notes Cynthia Swartz, the PR maven at 42West who is masterminding “Locker’s” Oscar strategy. “It wasn’t about saving money; when DVDs arrive, it costs the same in September or December. We made a strategic decision.”

All across town, studios and indies are making similar calls as they enter the later stages of awards season. In some cases, where it’s clear a movie stands little chance of being named best picture at the Oscars — as with the Weinstein Co.’s “Nine” or Paramount’s “The Lovely Bones” — that means spending less than either studio might otherwise have done.

In other cases, as with “Locker,” which scooped a fistful of critics’ prizes and then snagged a Producers Guild of America nomination, too, it means adding a final push much larger than Summit may have anticipated when the film was first released — which is why about 11,000 copies of “Locker’s” script have gone out in beautiful, bound editions to members of the Writers Guild of America.

For almost every contender, campaigns change as they enter these last weeks.

“If you have multiple pictures, you shift your resources toward what works,” says Bob Berney, president of Apparition, which has “The Young Victoria” in contention for Emily Blunt, but which has effectively seen its other contender, “Bright Star,” lose steam.

That’s something Sony Pictures Classics is keen to avoid with “An Education,” which received a PGA nomination for best picture but failed to be nominated for anything except best actress (drama) at the Golden Globes for Carey Mulligan.

“One thing (that) changes in the strategy — but it’s only a little bit — is to really emphasize how fantastically directed and written and edited it is,” says Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker, pointing to ads that now include more quotes and that emphasize how many other honors the movie has earned.

Sony Classics is also hosting more screenings, with a view to winning over Academy voters. “It’s important to understand that, in the Academy, writers vote for writers, directors for directors (etc.), as opposed to journalists voting for these awards (as with the Globes),” Barker continues. “So you make sure everyone has their DVD (and) you make sure Academy members can get in to see the movie in the theaters over the holidays. The key is to get all of the Academy to see your film.”

What Barker isn’t doing, that he might otherwise have done, is including Globes references in his advertising.

“You don’t run an ad that just includes the Globe (nomination for Mulligan),” he says. “You include everything else, like the London film critics, who nominated it for everything — more than any other movie — or Rex Reed, (who) named it the best movie of the year, so the impression is: the Golden Globe is not the only thing going for the film.”

Barker doesn’t discount the importance of the Globes and still plans to use the awards as he moves into the next few weeks. “It’s important to have a presence on the show,” he says, “because that show is very widely watched.”

This presence could mean having one of his stars serve as a presenter, in addition to having Mulligan attend. Of course, if she wins the category — where she remains a favorite — you can bet new ads will tout that fact.

Getting Globes nominations is important because it can lead to Oscar nominations. But nominations of all sorts also pull in an audience, and some movies are using the heightened awareness brought about by awards season to lure consumers, as well as Academy members, during these later stages.

“The awards, critical acclaim and top 10 lists allow you to cross over,” says Oscilloscope Labs president David Fenkel. “They help reach a broader audience and give (the movie) a stamp of approval: ‘It’s OK to go see this movie. It was an independent release, but it’s also one of the top 10 films of the year.’”

Fenkel decided to open “The Messenger” on November 13 because “we wanted to release it during awards season,” he says. “Releasing at that time is going to help the consumer campaign, at the same time as the consumer outreach is going to help with the awards.”

“The Messenger” has not yet benefited from major awards, even though its stars, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton, were both perceived to be serious contenders, which means it will likely now be pulling back its awards spend.

But the picture that’s really gotten hurt by lack of kudos is “Nine.”

While the movie received five Globes nominations, it was notably overlooked by the PGA and omitted from many critics’ top 10 lists. Earlier, the Weinsteins might have used positive results to whip up enthusiasm for the film; now, they are veering in a different direction and have reoriented their marketing, centering print ads on Penelope Cruz in a sexy outfit, rather than draw attention to the awards race.

The Weinsteins have been experts at turning even middling films into Oscar gold. Their late-phase marketing gave “Shakespeare in Love” an edge over “Saving Private Ryan,” and during that time they fine-tuned their campaign to target Oscar voters as far a field as Paris.

In 2003, veteran publicist Tony Angellotti remembers when Harvey Weinstein was still at Miramax and he held an event at the cavernous Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to showcase the music from “Cold Mountain,” including an appearance by Sting, who wrote and performed “You Will Be My Ain True Love” with Alison Krauss.

“They invited hundreds of Academy members, which was a technical violation of the rules,” he recalls. “But who wouldn’t show up for Sting?”

Events like this may happen more now. Some are within the bounds of propriety — like a Tuesday cocktail party that Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment put together at the last minute for Sandra Bullock and director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) when they realized Bullock was in serious contention for an acting award. Others cross the line — and those who do cross it will largely get away scot-free.

“The Academy really only has two options to punish them,” one insider says. “One is to deny them tickets to the Academy Awards — but when you aren’t even sure you’re if going to be nominated, that really isn’t a problem. No. 2 is the nuclear option, which is to disqualify the film. That’s never been done and probably never will be.”

“We haven’t seen any outright breaking of the rules this year that I’m aware of,” says Ric Robertson, executive administrator of the Academy. “But there’s so much gray area because many of our members are also members of guilds, so if someone is invited to a Q&A in violation of our rules, they’re able to fall back and say, ‘No, it was the editors’ guild or the cinematographers’ association,’ or something like that. That’s where it’s toughest to enforce our rules.”

Whatever individual campaigners decide to do, campaigning now shifts to reach a whole new body of voters who matter less in the early stages.

“You need those below-the-line categories to kick in and support you,” says publicist Ronni Chasen, who does work for Paramount, Lionsgate and others. “You need the actors, but to win best picture you also need the rank-and-file — the crafts groups, the editors, cinematographers and others.”

While actors constitute 1,222 voting members of the Academy, they are not alone. Film editors make up 227 votes, sound technicians 411 votes, cinematographers 197 votes and art directors 373 votes. Veteran campaigners are now targeting these groups by hosting events for them, advertising in -house publications and using respected guild members to introduce the films and key crew.

“It’s all (about) creating awareness,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Classics. “You want to remind people of the films.” Similarly, he says, “there are a lot of (stars and directors) doing a lot of chat shows in the first weeks of January.”

James Cameron is one of them. DVDs of his mega-grossing “Avatar” didn’t go out at all during the holidays — considered the peak time to reach voters — not just because the movie had only recently opened, but also, insiders say, because Cameron couldn’t personally supervise the 2D version until he had finished tub-thumping his movie around the world. (The director spent part of his Christmas season overseeing the DVD version, which finally went out January 10.)

“By then, it was mainly a way to help people reinforce the experience,” says one studio marketer, noting that the DVD may matter less for “Avatar” than for “Hurt Locker” because the movie has been so widely seen — and also because Fox wants Academy members to see it in theaters in order to fully appreciate its scope and ambitions.

“Avatar’s” critical response is a factor that has shifted the race almost overnight. Before the picture opened, talk about the front-runners centered on “Up in the Air,” “Invictus,” “Precious” and “Inglourious Basterds.” Now all must contend with Cameron’s monster. That is typical of how the race shifts late in the game.

“Sometimes you get a new piece of data you feel is relevant or there are elements of a campaign that are really working and getting some traction,” says Megan Colligan, co-president of marketing at Paramount Pictures. “Every campaign is fluid. You look at material cut two months before and can’t believe how bad it is; but at the time you did it, you thought it was the best thing in the world. Your opinions change. The movies do tend to live and breathe and evolve, and your job is to keep working with (them).”

That is what Colligan will be doing with “The Lovely Bones,” even though its Oscar chances are effectively over. She seems stoic. “There are movies that live and die by awards,” she explains. “I don’t think we have one of those this year. In previous years, I absolutely have had them (such as ‘There Will Be Blood’). With those, if they don’t get awards recognition, there isn’t another way to go. It’s nice when there are other audiences you can capture.”

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