Times Staff Writer

Youth and age were both served Wednesday when the Directors Guild of America included 31-year-old Ron Howard and 79-year-old John Huston among its five nominees for its best feature film director's award for 1985.

Howard was a modestly surprising choice for "Cocoon," a science-fiction film about a group of senior citizens who find an alien-spiced fountain of youth in a neighbor's swimming pool. But Huston's nomination--his seventh since the DGA initiated the award in 1948--was a foregone conclusion for his hip gangster comedy "Prizzi's Honor."

The other nominees, also expected, were Steven Spielberg, his fifth DGA nomination, for "The Color Purple," Sydney Pollack, his third nomination, for "Out of Africa," and Peter Weir, his first, for "Witness."

Howard's nomination was also a first for the popular former TV actor, who made the successful switch to film directing with the comedies "Night Shift" and "Splash!"

None of this year's nominees has won before.

The DGA nominations, announced by guild President Gilbert Cates, provide the first industry tip sheet on the Oscar race. Although the DGA nominations are voted by all 7,800 members of the organization--the majority of whom are TV directors, assistant directors, unit production managers and stage managers--the slate often mirrors the Oscar nominations that are voted by the directors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The winner of the DGA award will be announced March 8. Only twice in the last four decades has the DGA winner been different from the Oscar winner.

RUNAWAY REFRAIN: If the prominence of a company's Academy Award advertising campaign in the daily Hollywood trade papers translated into nominations, Cannon Films' "Runaway Train" would be the runaway leader when this year's nominations are announced Wednesday.

Cannon placed more than 30 full-page ads in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, promoting everything from the movie as best picture to Akira Kurosawa and a trio of other writers for best screenplay.

Cannon President Menahem Golan estimates that he spent $150,000 on the trade-paper ad campaign and another $30,000 on a series of screenings for academy members that included--in about 30 instances--private screenings in the homes of those voters too feeble to get to a theater.

"I called every person in the academy," Golan says, "and said if they couldn't get out of the house I would show it to them there."

Despite Cannon's aggressive campaign, Golan says he would be "flabbergasted and amazed" if "Runaway Train" won a best picture nomination. He said he'll even be surprised if Jon Voight, already the Golden Globe winner as best actor from "Runaway Train," gets a nomination.

Why? Because Cannon is seen as an outsider in a parochial industry, and because the company's name is still associated with low-budget exploitation films.

"When people ask me if the Oscars are honest, I say, 'Yes, in terms of no one is actually cheating,' " Golan says. "But it is not honest in terms of voting for the best movies. Of the 4,000 people in the academy, how many are salaried by major companies? At least 1,000, probably more."

Golan says voters with studio affiliations stack the deck against independents in two ways; by voting for the house product as their first choice and by ignoring those films they consider the strongest competition.

"If you want your movie to score the most points, vote your picture first and don't list your competitors in two through five."

Unquestionably, there are members of the academy with special rooting interests. Most of the major studio's chief executives are voting members (through the executive branch) and besides their potential increased income from awards, there is the thrill of having their judgments validated.

There is also a large block of publicists with voting rights, and with Oscars and publicity being functions of each other (some voting publicists are on studio payrolls doing nothing but running Oscar campaigns), conscience may not always be their guide.

Golan is also a voter, via his membership in the producers branch. And did he, uh. . . ?

"Did I vote for a Cannon film? Yes."

FRONT RUNNERS: Despite the huge ad campaign for "Runaway Train," Cannon was not the biggest spender during the nominations phase of the '85 Oscar Derby. That title goes to either Warner Bros., for "The Color Purple," or Universal Pictures, for "Out of Africa."

Neither studio will volunteer figures, but film industry marketing insiders say the frequent two-page color ads that appeared in the trades for "Purple" and "Africa" (we counted six for "Purple" and five for "Africa") probably cost as much or more than Cannon's "Train" campaign.

In addition, the studios sent elaborate literature promoting their candidates to every member of the academy. For "Purple," there was a 44-page book-bound color brochure. For "Africa," Universal sent out an envelope stuffed with spectacular 15-inch by 10-inch color photos.

Other films that got the big push for best picture nominations--at least in the trades--were "Witness," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Twice in a Lifetime" and "Cocoon."

DREAM SEASON: There's always a chuckle or two to be found within the maze of Oscar campaign ads. A studio often invests in an ad to show a star how much it appreciated working with him, and egos apparently insulate the stars from being embarrassed.

This year's wildest ideas: Sylvester Stallone as best actor (MGM/UA plugged him for a nomination for "Rocky IV," Tri-Star chipped in with an ad promoting him for "Rambo"); Ariane, who gave the year's most critically panned performance in "The Year of the Dragon," was suggested as best actress in an all-purpose MGM/UA ad for that movie. And "Revolution," which made more critics' bottom 10 lists than top 10s, was offered up by Warner Bros. as a best picture selection.

FALL FEST?: It looks as if there will be a 1986 Filmex after all. But it will be delayed a few months, probably until September.

Officials of the Los Angeles International Film Exposition and American Cinematheque, which are busily working out details of an organizational merger, would not confirm Wednesday that the festival is being rescheduled from spring to fall--the merger has to be completed, said one source, before the entity exists to make the decision--but it is almost certain to come about.

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