I was around a gaggle of movie people the other night who were all talking about the Oscars. That wouldn't be such an odd thing at this time of year, except for one thing: The awards themselves were something of an after-thought. Everybody was talking about their favorite over-the-top Oscar campaigns.
Once again, it's Oscar overkill season. And once again, the classy part of the Oscars -- the Academy Awards themselves -- is being overshadowed by the overamped excess of studio Oscar advertising and publicity. Even given the usual carpet-bombing-style academy marketing campaigns, this has been a banner year for hype and negative campaigning.
But the most fascinating Oscar tug-of-war has been between Universal and Miramax, which have been embroiled in a spitting match over Miramax's alleged involvement in a campaign to badmouth "A Beautiful Mind." The behind-the-scenes battle began in late December when a Miramax Oscar publicist phoned a reporter to tip him off to a piece that ran in the Drudge Report before Christmas that said gay scenes from Sylvia Nasar's book "A Beautiful Mind" had been "completely scrubbed" from the film.
Miramax czar Harvey Weinstein initially apologized to Universal studio chief Stacey Snider. But the battle has escalated since. Roger Friedman, who writes a column for FoxNews.com, has repeatedly attacked the credibility of "A Beautiful Mind" while repeatedly fawning over Miramax's Oscar contenders. The columns have raised eyebrows because the columnist has close ties to Miramax, having edited a pair of Talk magazine Oscar issues and served as a producer of a documentary that played at Sundance and is being distributed by Miramax.
At Golden Globes time, the New York Post ran a story detailing Miramax's involvement in phoning anti-"Beautiful Mind" tips to reporters and an ensuing flurry of phone calls between Universal and Miramax. Both sides have since denied having any problems, but believing Universal was somehow behind the story, Weinstein angrily confronted Snider at a post-Globes party, where he threatened to retaliate against "A Beautiful Mind," according to eyewitnesses. Miramax spokesman Mathew Hiltzik said about the incident: "It's a completely inaccurate third-party account of a private conversation. Harvey has incredible respect for Stacey Snider and everyone at Universal."
And then there are the Oscar ads! From the time Oscar ballots went out Jan. 8 to last Friday, the deadline for ballot submissions, the two Hollywood trade papers, the New York Times and this newspaper have been stuffed with ads noisily competing for the attention of the 5,000-odd academy voters. When asked why DreamWorks ran three "Shrek" ads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times every Friday last month, studio marketing chief Terry Press said: "Because everyone else ran two." Disney even ran full-page best picture trade ads for "Pearl Harbor," a movie likely to get about as many Oscar votes as "Not Another Teen Movie."
The usual critic hosannas have been drowned out by a tidal wave of blurbs from everyone from George Will, who gushed over "A Beautiful Mind," to "The Shipping News" author E. Annie Proulx, who shilled for the movie version of her own book, calling it "a brilliant film I didn't dream could be made!"
Even though the Oscar nominations won't be announced for another week, Miramax has been running ads touting "Amélie" as "One of the 5 Best Picture Oscar Nominees!" after first saying, "Premiere Magazine picks 'Amélie' as:" in smaller type. Twentieth Century Fox has been touting "Moulin Rouge" to older academy members with kudos from movie musical giants Stanley Donen and Robert Wise.
And Miramax has been running "In the Bedroom" ads with a blurb from Vanity Fair society writer Dominick Dunne, who was initially billed as "one of the most important writers of our time" but by Friday was demoted to "one of the most respected journalists in America." In what many view as poor taste, the ad trades on Dunne's own personal tragedy -- his daughter was strangled by her boyfriend some years ago -- to lend authenticity to his praise by having him say, "As one who has lived the experience, I found the [film's] astonishing resolution both terrifying and noble."
Still, my favorite Oscar revelation came during an actors' round-table interview in last week's issue of Newsweek, where "In the Bedroom" leading man Tom Wilkinson revealed that Miramax had given him a secret memo "about how to conduct ourselves when talking to the press about 'In the Bedroom.' There were about 10 things. You're not allowed to refer to how much the movie cost to make. You're not allowed to call it 'The Little Train That Could....' "
Miramax wouldn't supply a copy of the memo. But after conferring with several studio publicity experts, I've assembled my own slightly exaggerated version of "In the Bedroom" talking points aimed at director Todd Field and cast members Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei:
1. Emphasize the emotional core of the story. If asked to discuss the story line, say this is not a story of vengeance but a story of redemption. This has worked well in the past, especially when we sold "The Cider House Rules" as a movie not about illegal abortion but about personal redemption.
2. Use the film's minuscule budget to position it as an underdog overachiever: Tell people that "Black Hawk Down" spent more on catering than we had to shoot our entire film. We're positioning this film as a "labor of love," so make the point that you passed up far more lucrative movies for the opportunity to appear in this special story.
3. Sissy: Don't be afraid to sell the "comeback" angle of your story. Oscar voters love actors who are survivors, classy veterans who get rediscovered after years of lower-profile work -- just ask Michael Caine to show you his statuette! Find a way to drop in stories about your early "pedigree" films in which you worked with Tommy Lee Jones on "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Jack Lemmon on "Missing."
4. Tom: The academy loves its English cousins, so play up all that Shakespeare repertory you've done. In fact, you might say you were attracted to this film because the material had so many "reminders of Shakespeare" to it -- don't forget you were in "Shakespeare in Love," which did after all win the best picture Oscar, the very model of a Miramax Oscar campaign. Or let it drop how you and Judi Dench were talking about "how we love being in these brave little movies across the pond." But always profess a love for things American. If the interview is at lunch, order a burger and French fries with lots of ketchup and say, "I'm beginning to feel like a regular Yank!"
5. Marisa: It's good to gently remind people that you really did win an Oscar. Just try to avoid actually mentioning the film you won it for. If people think you were in "Howards End" instead of "My Cousin Vinny," so much the better. Stress your own comeback saga. You could say, "I was so young when I won that I really didn't appreciate how much an Oscar meant -- it really means a lot just to be back in competition again."
6. Todd: It's vital to remind the all-powerful actors branch of the academy that you are one of them! So talk a lot about what it means to cross over to the other side of the camera and the challenge of honoring the work of so many great fellow actors. But the less said about your own acting career the better; whatever you do, don't mention that bit part you had in "The Haunting."
7. All of you are adults, but we can't remind you enough: The media are always watching. So be on your best behavior. It's our little Russell Crowe Rule: Don't get drunk at critic dinners and insult the press. Don't belch when you give an acceptance speech. And whatever you do, if you lose, don't stomp out of the auditorium and then stay all night with Courtney Love and spend the next six months having every gossip columnist write about whether you slept with her or not!
8. If asked about the competition, be gracious -- but not too gracious. For example: Don't say "Moulin Rouge" was "an incomparable accomplishment." Call it "a sturdy piece of filmmaking." If people ask you what movie you'd vote for besides your own, please pick one that's not a potential nominee. In other words, gush all you want about "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
9. If people ask about Miramax, mention how collaborative Harvey Weinstein has been on the project. And now that we've cleared up that misunderstanding over why some of you were booked into the Motel 6 instead of the Four Seasons, please say how the studio has given this film its unswerving support from start to finish.
10. And whatever you do, don't call the movie the Little Train That Could. Please!