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Isn’t It a Bit Early to Talk About This Guy?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the “Shakespeare in Love” syndrome. Barely six months after the romantic comedy captured seven Academy Awards and triggered an uproar inside the film community over the campaign waged on its behalf by Miramax, the new Oscar season is already gearing up in Hollywood--one that looks to be harder fought than ever.

Just as presidential politics seem mired in a never-ending campaign that stretches from one election cycle to the next, the movie-awards season has also taken on the trappings of a long-running political contest, one replete with outside consultants, marketing schemes, mass mailings and finely tuned publicity and advertising campaigns. The lessons of last year’s carefully planned “Shakespeare in Love” triumph haven’t been lost on Hollywood.

And that has left some studio executives appalled.

“I am not comfortable turning this process into a campaign,” said Terry Press, marketing chief at DreamWorks, whose studio felt the sting of defeat at the last Oscar show when Steven Spielberg’s World War II combat drama “Saving Private Ryan” lost best picture honors to “Shakespeare.”

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“I think it has really gotten out of hand,” Press said. “The whole question of studios pushing films for the Academy Awards is distasteful to me because it implies that it’s a political process versus a quality process. It doesn’t mean that all of us have to go along with it.”

Studios may not like it, but they’re quickly getting with the Oscar program.

This year, for instance, Paramount has brought in a former publicist at Universal Pictures and PolyGram Films, Bruce Feldman, to assist the studio in its Oscar campaign for “Angela’s Ashes,” director Alan Parker’s adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.

And at Sony, which has such films in the wings as Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair,” Luc Besson’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” and James Mangold’s “Girl Interrupted,” awards consultant Michael Battaglia has already set up shop and is being assisted this season by Judi Schwam, who is coming off Gramercy Pictures’ Oscar campaign for “Elizabeth.”

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“I don’t think any longer we’re looking at the Oscars as an event taking place late in the winter of the year,” notes Bob Levin, who heads worldwide marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment. . . . It’s really now backing up to this period of time [early fall].”

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Sources say Disney--with films such as Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and Robin Williams in “Bicentennial Man,” may hire outside consultants in the coming weeks, while Warner Bros., with such highly anticipated movies as Tom Hanks in “The Green Mile” and Oliver Stone’s football film, “Any Given Sunday,” is once again turning to its Oscar pro, David Horowitz, who a decade ago helped Orion Pictures in its successful back-to-back Oscar campaigns for “Dances With Wolves” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

At the same time, some studios have begun screening films for academy members. For example, Disney is screening “The Straight Story,” a small film starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek.

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And, taking a cue from Miramax, which successfully used glossy wraparound ads to draw attention to “Shakespeare in Love” and its star, Gwyneth Paltrow, industry observers say rival studios will be lining up to buy the same kind of ads in Hollywood’s two trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, later this year.

Studio marketing departments are under enormous pressure to make sure that their films receive adequate attention, whether it be from members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who vote on the Oscars, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Golden Globes, or the myriad awards dispensed by critics groups and Hollywood’s talent guilds.

One major reason is that when a film receives a nomination or goes on to capture a statuette, marketing departments then use the honors in their advertising and publicity in hopes of boosting a film’s box office.

For example, just prior to the Oscar nominations on Feb. 9, “Shakespeare in Love” had taken in a total of $36.2 million. But after its nominations, the film went on to gross another $64 million in North America. Indeed, the film grossed $3.5 million on the weekend prior to the nominations and then, after adding 1,123 screens, it grossed $9.1 million the following weekend, according to the box-office tracking firm, Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

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“We are living in a world where it is becoming more and more difficult [to get movies noticed] because of the clutter in the marketplace,” said Bob Friedman, co-chairman of worldwide marketing for New Line Cinema. “Anything that helps differentiate a product on any level is essential.”

“Last year, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was not a broad-audience film, but the Oscar hype helped make it that,” added Rolf Mittweg, New Line’s other co-chairman of marketing.

Last Friday, the academy mailed out a revised list of guidelines to marketing departments reminding them how to conduct their Oscar campaigns.

“The academy urges that the people involved exercise restraint in what they do and be dignified,” said academy President Bob Rehme. “Other than that, there isn’t much we can do.”

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The guidelines, which have been in force for several years, prohibit such strategies as studios contacting academy members by phone, inviting them to dinners or receptions to promote a film, or mailing cassettes to members inside elaborate packages. Under the revised guidelines, studios are permitted this year for the first time to mail out DVDs as well as screenplays.

“We have decided it is OK for them to send out actual copies of screenplays so long as they are very plain--no blurbs or review quotes--to members of the writers’ branch during the pre-nomination process,” explained Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy.

Unlike recent years, when independent films “The English Patient,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Piano” gave the studios stiff competition at Oscar time, major studios are weighing in this year with an unusually large, eclectic lineup of character-driven, issue-oriented or epic dramas, such as “Anna and the King,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Man on the Moon,” “Magnolia,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “The Hurricane,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Cradle Will Rock” and “Cider House Rules.”

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While Oscar campaigns have come to resemble their political counterparts, Hollywood observers say there is one major difference: While politicians can project a certain image and even try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes, movies are out there on the big screen for all to see and judge for themselves. Still, they add, a good marketing campaign can insure that quality movies and performances are not overlooked.

“You have to know how to run a good campaign,” said Arthur Cohen, who heads worldwide marketing at Paramount Pictures, and has been involved in hard-fought Oscar campaigns on behalf of “Braveheart” and “Forrest Gump.”

“What marketing departments cannot do is waste time on movies that have no chance,” Cohen explained. “My advice is to focus on the possibilities and back them. Do the best you can to get the movies seen on the big screen.”

Getting films their proper notice is the job of a small army of marketing veterans to whom the studios turn year after year for help in coordinating their awards campaigns.

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And no one does it better than Miramax. The studio has its own in-house awards consultant in Cynthia Swartz, but it also uses Los Angeles-based publicist Tony Angellotti as a consultant.

Why do studios feel they need these consultants?

“There is a tremendous number of nuts and bolts that need to be taken care of,” said Swartz. “You’re setting up screenings, getting video cassettes produced, and there are 8 trillion applications that have to be filed.”

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Miramax has been praised and reviled for its past Oscar campaigns, but Swartz laughed off critics who say the company, which operates as an independent banner under the corporate umbrella of the Walt Disney Co., has devised some “secret” strategy to win the Academy Award. “There isn’t any secret,” she said. “You make your film as available as possible [for screening by academy members].”

Another lesson studios have learned from “Shakespeare in Love” is to have their stars available to publicize the films as much as possible.

“Gwyneth Paltrow was everywhere [during the last Oscar campaign],” said one Hollywood observer. “She was on every cover, at every premiere. ‘Entertainment Tonight’ must have had a piece featuring her twice a week. She was at this, she was at that, but she was doing stuff. With ‘Elizabeth,’ [Gramercy] had an actress [Cate Blanchett] who was in England.”

This year, DreamWorks has what it believes is an Oscar-worthy film in “American Beauty,” a dark comedy of suburban life starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, but marketing chief Press said her studio has limits on how far it will go to get it Oscar nominations.

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“Will I make the movie available to academy members [for viewing]? Yes,” Press said. “Will I make available cassettes? Yes. Will I take out trade ads? Yes. But I am not comfortable beginning a campaign in October. . . . Yes, we will definitely make our support for ‘American Beauty’ known, but not to the point of sacrificing good taste and respect for the process.”


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