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‘Shakespeare’ Ad Blitz Has ‘Ryan’ Returning Fire

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An unusually aggressive--and expensive--marketing campaign by Miramax in support of its Oscar-nominated film “Shakespeare in Love” has jolted Hollywood and raised questions about how far a studio should go to bolster its chances for an Academy Award.

The massive Miramax ad blitz--in the $15-million range so far, according to sources--in the trades and other publications has caused DreamWorks to fire back with its own stronger-than-anticipated push for its best picture nominee “Saving Private Ryan.” Most observers see “Ryan” and “Shakespeare” as the two overwhelming favorites for best picture.

“There is no question that the aggressiveness of the extraordinary campaign Miramax has run in support of ‘Shakespeare’ has caused us to do more on behalf of ‘Ryan’ than we had initially planned,” says DreamWorks co-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Industry insiders have characterized the media saturation by the two companies as “highly unusual.” Says one studio executive: “I would think at some point there’s going to be a backlash on the amount of money being spent.”

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The competition has been colored by alleged behind-the-scenes sniping between the two companies and the sense that executives were trying to plant stories in publications. A column in this week’s New York magazine characterized Miramax’s Oscar push as overkill and implied that the company was deprecating “Ryan” in the process.

Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein was so upset by the column that he called New York magazine and threatened legal action. A conference call was later held involving representatives from Miramax and the magazine.

Representatives for Miramax and DreamWorks deny any strong-arm tactics with the press. While admitting that he complained to New York’s editors about the piece before he’d even read it, Weinstein said it wasn’t criticism about the company’s Oscar tactics that stung, but the suggestion that he was bad-mouthing Spielberg’s film and that there is bad blood between “Ryan’s” director and Miramax.

“They’re trying to take old friends and make it seem like we’re enemies,” says Weinstein. (Several phone calls to Nikki Finke, author of the New York magazine piece, went unreturned.) The magazine piece attributes negative comments about “Ryan” to publicists for “Shakespeare” but not to Weinstein.

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“I was strongly bothered by any inference that I would say anything against ‘Ryan,’ ” said Weinstein. “I took great umbrage at anyone saying that I told a critic that the movie (‘Ryan’) was running out of steam. I think Steven is our greatest living filmmaker. Why would I want to say anything negative?”

Katzenberg declined to confirm dollar figures, but admits that the company redoubled its efforts on behalf of “Ryan” to match those of Miramax.

“He’s (Weinstein) running a tough, competitive campaign,” Katzenberg said. “We’ve felt compelled to supplement the original plans we had put in place.”

But Katzenberg downplayed reports that the battle between the two companies had become personal: “There’s no animosity in it,” he said of Miramax’s campaign.

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“Ryan” opened to great acclaim last June and was pulled from release in November in advance of an Oscar season re-release. The film is currently playing in theaters nationwide. “Shakespeare” debuted in limited release at the end of the year, also to lavish critical praise, and was held back from a national break until the Oscar nominations were announced in early February, a common practice for Miramax, especially when it suspects a film could snag multiple Oscar nominations. (A similar strategy was followed last year for “Good Will Hunting.”)

The Oscar nominations, announced Feb. 9, confirmed that the race for best picture--which earlier had been seen as a lock for “Ryan"--now looked to be far from over. “Shakespeare” ended up with 13 nominations to 11 for “Ryan.” The film with the most Oscar nominations in a given year often has an edge when it comes to the final balloting.

“Shakespeare” was also newer in the minds of voters and a more accessible popular entertainment, although that has never held much sway with the academy, with high-minded, socially important films often going home with best picture honors (“Schindler’s List” and “Gandhi,” for example) as opposed to more popcorn-friendly fare.

“Shakespeare’s” 13 nominations proved to be Miramax’s best marketing tool, particularly outside of major urban and suburban areas where the word “Shakespeare” in the title weighed against the film, Weinstein says. The film has grossed about $65 million to date, more than half of that since the nominations were announced. Weinstein says the movie could reach $80 million by Oscar night, and he’s hoping a best picture win on March 21 could take it to $100 million.

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“Ryan” has recently made another $15 million in addition to the $191 million from its initial release. Though some in the industry expressed surprise that DreamWorks was still buying expensive TV and print ads this late in the game, one distribution executive noted: “If I had ‘Ryan,’ I would have done the same thing. They had no alternative.”

One source close to the situation estimates DreamWorks may have spent $2 million more than originally budgeted to maintain the film’s profile. Competing studio marketing executives say the figure is even higher.

Miramax has never been shy about promoting its Oscar candidates. The studio is known for lavish parties celebrating its nominees and expensive full-color Oscar campaign buys for its past best picture candidates such as “The Crying Game,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The English Patient” and “Good Will Hunting.”

But this year’s effort may have appeared even more excessive because consumer advertising to woo paying customers was heaped upon a pull-out-the-stops ad campaign to tout “Shakespeare” with academy members who subscribe to Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

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“But,” insists Katzenberg, “it’s about trying to maximize the revenues for both films” and not to manipulate Oscar voters.

Variety publisher Gerry Byrne says Oscar advertising was definitely up this year, mainly because of the nature of the competition.

“It always depends on the films that are up for the Oscar,” says Byrne. “ ‘Private Ryan’ had a dominant lead when it was released. Then a bunch of other films came out that were interesting as competitors. Thankfully, they were brought out by distributors who had the money to support their Oscar campaign. We’re not complaining.”


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