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HOLLYWOOD HABITS : Reality Bites Universal’s Oscar Hopes

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

Last Friday, Universal Pictures’ top brass--led by motion picture group Chairman Tom Pollock, President Casey Silver and marketing chiefs Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones--huddled together and decided to yank the remaining Academy Award ads the studio had booked to run in the Hollywood trade papers promoting nine of its 1994 movies.

Maybe it’s just coincidental (though some sources close to Universal insist it’s not) that MCA honchos Sidney Sheinberg and Lew Wasserman had just returned last week from Osaka, Japan, where they met with mama and papa bear (i.e., MCA parent Matsushita) for an annual review of the company’s 1994 business results and plans for the coming year.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Sheinberg insisted he and Wasserman “had nothing to do with (the decision to cancel the ads)” and “Matsushita has less to do with it than you do.” Nonetheless, someone in Universal’s Black Tower saw red. Red ink, that is, spilled all over the pages of Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter for Oscar ads touting movies like “Junior,” “The Shadow” and “The River Wild"--films that not only lost tons of money at the box office, but have virtually no shot at winning Academy Awards.

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The decision to cancel eight ads, which were to run Wednesday through next Monday, will save the company close to $100,000--a good chunk of change. But it also apparently cost the company some ego bruising on behalf of any filmmaker who believed his or her movie might have a shot at mighty Oscar. And, Hollywood is a place where egos are supposed to be protected and stroked--even if sometimes at a ridiculous price.

That’s why this time of year, you’ll see the trades fat with campaigns not only for legitimate Oscar contenders like “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction,” but “vanity” ads for such best picture long-shots as Luc Besson’s “The Professional” or Penny Marshall’s “Renaissance Man.”

Let’s get real.

Apparently, that’s what Universal brass concluded when they took stock of the movies they had been pushing for Oscar contention, which also included “The Paper,” “The Flintstones,” “The War,” “Reality Bites,” “Crooklyn” and . . . yep, “Time Cop.”

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Not exactly a “Schindler’s List” among them.

“We want to do the right thing where budgets are concerned--this is a business,” says Universal marketing president Kathy Jones, who says management had “no trepidation” about pulling the ads since Oscar ballots were already in academy members’ hands by this past weekend and the studio had mailed the 5,000 or so members videocassettes of nine movies. (Ballots for Oscar nominations, to be announced Feb. 14, are due Feb. 2.)

Over the past few years at Oscar voting time, studios have increasingly used the direct-mail approach of sending out cassettes to remind members of their movies.

“People make up their minds when they experience the picture. It doesn’t matter how many ads are run,” contends Jones.

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A producer at Universal says that while the cost-saving move undoubtedly caused some ego bending, “The studio made a perfectly sound, reasonable belt-tightening decision and decided to bite the bullet and take the calls.”

At least one angry call came from filmmaker David Foster, who produced “The River Wild” with partner Lawrence Turman.

“I happen to be a very competitive individual and I love to be in the game and win,” he says. “I’m disappointed because I think Meryl (Streep) and Kevin (Bacon) are in the running for best actress and best supporting actor and they’re not being supported. I don’t understand (Universal) doing this in midstream. It’s like swimming across a channel and saying, ‘Hey, I’m tired, I’m going back.’ ”

Other filmmakers, those with movies that are clearly bona fide Oscar long-shots, were more realistic about the decision.

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Director Ivan Reitman, whose Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy, “Junior,” didn’t fly with audiences, says he thinks the company made “an intelligent decision.”

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Reitman admits, “If the film was bigger . . . if I had a movie that was an Oscar contender, it might have been different, but I don’t think it has any chance to get a nomination.”

Universal had already spent big bucks on a half-dozen ads for “Junior,” including some two-page spreads that cost around $15,000 each.

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According to Jon Avnet, who directed “The War,” starring Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood, he personally initiated a call to Universal executives about a week ago to say "(my) movie didn’t make money, so why spend the money? I didn’t think it was worth it.”

One Universal insider suggests that only one star “has the right to be bent out of shape” about the Oscar ads cancellation: Fred Flintstone.

“And, he’s not going to call!”


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