Oscar silly season: ‘Funny People’ for best picture?

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Far be it from me to stop all of my favorite Hollywood studios from buying Oscar ‘For Your Consideration’ ads, since they often make for a good chuckle over the morning coffee and provide a much-needed economic boost for my paper, the New York Times and the struggling Hollywood trades. But if you’re a studio, why should you be buying ads for movies that have no chance of winning a big award?

Well, it’s because it’s the silly season for Oscar ads, that time of year, before any actual nominations have been announced, when a studio is willing to spend some real dough giving their talent the warm and fuzzy feeling that goes with seeing their name attached to a ‘For Your Consideration’ ad.

That’s certainly what Universal has been doing with its Judd Apatow-directed summer film, ‘Funny People,’ which has had ads running everywhere, bolstered by a fancy 22-page booklet chock-full of glowing critics blurbs that the studio mailed out recently to various media types and Golden Globes voters. Unfortunately, the movie was a dud at the box office and earned mixed reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 68, a rating that does not bode well for its Oscar best-picture chances.

But the ‘Funny People’ ad that caught my attention was one that ran in our newspaper the other day featuring the film’s star, Adam Sandler, with his head superimposed on the body of a baby in diapers. Who can say if it’s funny or not, since comedy is in the eye of the beholder. But it actually seemed an image guaranteed to prevent anyone -- especially stodgy academy voters who already have a notorious lack of respect for comedy -- from tossing a vote in ‘Funny People’s’ direction.


To be fair, Universal is not alone in its pursuit of long-shot Oscar glory. Warners has been running an aggressive campaign for ‘The Informant,’ the Matt Damon-starring, Steven Soderbergh-directed thriller that was also a box-office disappointment this fall and a movie with virtually no chance of landing any major Oscar nominations. Other far-fetched campaigns include a best-actor ad for ‘Where the Wild Things Are’s’ Max Records, a best-actor ad for ‘Bad Lieutenant’s’ Nicolas Cage (the movie, despite strong reviews, is such a stiff at the box office that it hasn’t even made $1 million yet), a best-animated-feature ad for ‘Astro Boy’ (another box-office dud) and a best-actor ad for Robert De Niro in ‘Everybody’s Fine,’ a forgettable Christmas dramedy that barely made a dent in its opening last week.

So why do studios shell out cash for such Oscar whoppers? Well, everyone in Hollywood is an optimist, so its easy to dream that maybe a movie could capture some unlikely awards-season momentum. Universal, for example, is probably hoping that ‘Funny People,’ with its Sandler star power, could perhaps end up with a Golden Globe nomination in the comedy and musical category.

But in most cases, it’s all about relationships. Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler have made zillions of dollars for Universal over the years, their films often representing the difference between the studio being in the red or in the black. An Oscar ad campaign, even a sizable one like the studio’s current ‘Funny People’ push, is a small price to pay for a studio to show its appreciation. In this case, my sources say that Apatow is actually bankrolling part of the costs for the ‘Funny People’ campaign, since he feels the movie deserves some awards-season consideration and was mishandled in its initial release. (Universal would not comment on whether Apatow was providing initial funding.)

The same relationship rationale would explain why Warners is supporting ‘The Informant,’ since Damon and Soderbergh have made tons of money for the studio, via its ‘Oceans’ franchise. So while it looks like folly from the outside, if you’re on the inside, it’s a bottom-line business decision. If you’re running a studio, you always want your star talent to feel as if you’ve gone that extra mile to support their work, even if in the case of most of these movies, the Oscar ads have more in common with a charitable donation than a plausible shot at a big-time award.

So I’ll put my money where my mouth is: If ‘Funny People’ gets a best-picture nomination, I’ll be happy to make a $100 donation to the charity of Judd Apatow’s choice. I figure that’s what you call a win-win situation. Stay tuned!


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