Studios Are Spinning Golden Globes Buzz Into Oscar Hopes

Times Staff Writer

Orna Zadeh doesn't have Hollywood's most glamorous job. Much of her day at MGM is spent surfing the Internet and working the phones, tracking obscure Web sites.

Don't fret if you've never heard of Neil Moon's little-known Oscar prediction site, posted from Warwickshire, England. Zadeh has. She can tell you exactly what Moon thinks of every one of MGM and United Artists' top Oscar contenders -- and she has a four-page spreadsheet to prove it. According to Moon, "Igby Goes Down" could get three nominations; "Bowling for Columbine" may be named for best documentary and best director; and "Nicholas Nickleby" has a shot at four nominations, including best picture.

It may seem trivial, but Zadeh's command of these arcane details -- especially in the days leading up to tonight's Golden Globe Awards -- may not be so inconsequential. MGM cultivates Moon and more than a dozen other far-flung Internet film geeks to help generate the most elusive yet most critical component of an awards campaign: grass-roots buzz.

Even if no single Golden Globe or Academy Award voter ever visits, the person who bags their groceries just might. And in one brief chat after the paper-or-plastic query, one seed could be planted, one flicker of momentum. And that tiny edge might spell the difference between recognition and ignorance, particularly for a studio such as MGM that is riding a lot of long shots.

The Globes mark a midpoint in every studio's four-month quest for Oscar gold -- and a pivotal moment in every studio's awards push. It's why the Globes are taken seriously in Hollywood, even if the organization that gives them out isn't.

For a statistician, the Globes, put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., are a joke. With just 90 association members (two have died in the last two months), a nominee can theoretically win a trophy with a mere 19 first-place votes. But for industry insiders whose only mathematical worries are box-office figures, the Golden Globe numbers add up just fine.

That's because a Globe win can resuscitate the hopes of outsiders, including some of the people and films being pushed by MGM. Get a Golden Globe nomination and you can dedicate a lot more time and money to an Academy Award campaign. End up with a Golden Globe win, and you're racing around the track with a fresh tank of gas.

With the Globes coming up, MGM's marketing and publicity team has been in high gear, trying to take advantage of the tiniest shred of awards momentum. In a windowless fourth-floor conference room in Santa Monica, MGM's marketing and publicity staff (United Artists is part of MGM) gathers every week to strategize and compare notes. The studio allowed a reporter inside those team meetings, providing a rare glimpse into how an awards campaign is orchestrated.

This is not a front-running studio that has huge sums to spend promoting Oscar favorites such as "The Hours" (Paramount) or "Gangs of New York" (Miramax). Where other studios have A-list stars such as "The Hours' " Nicole Kidman, a media darling who has been all over television, newspapers and magazines, MGM's big gun is "Igby Goes Down" star Kieran Culkin -- who's been off doing a play in London and doesn't have a cell phone. Consequently, MGM's style is guerrilla marketing.

The biggest resource is ingenuity, not cash. "When you have a limited amount of money to spend, you have to spend the money very carefully," said Eric Kops, MGM's senior vice president for publicity. The studio to date has laid out about $300,000 campaigning for its six nominees and will devote an additional $100,000 over the coming weeks. That would be a lot of money for a tiny independent such as Lions Gate, trying to get best actress attention for "Secretary" star Maggie Gyllenhaal. But it's chump change for major studios that can pour millions into their Oscar push.

Making Plans

Like a precision military operation, a successful awards campaign anticipates every potential skirmish and drafts contingency plans to deal with casualties and unforeseen opportunities: If Sandra Bullock is unable to appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman" to tout her new Warner Bros. movie, "Two Weeks Notice," MGM's New York staff has a backup plan. Over the speaker phone, the New York contingent says Culkin, who has just finished his London play, is standing by, ready to replace her.

Overseen by Adam Keen, MGM special projects vice president, the awards team leaves no detail -- such as who will walk down which red carpet with whom -- to chance. The overriding goal is to reinforce a movie's merits in every Oscar voter's mind as many times as possible, so that when the polls close for Academy Award nominations on Jan. 29, MGM and UA movies are listed on as many ballots as possible. (The nominations are announced Feb. 11.)

MGM has two films with Golden Globe hopes. "Igby Goes Down," a comedy about a dysfunctional family, drew nominations for best comic actor for Culkin and best supporting actress for Susan Sarandon. "Nicholas Nickleby," an adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, was nominated for best comic movie. Probably the studio's strongest Oscar contender, Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," was not nominated because the Globes do not have a documentary category.

But as the MGM strategy meeting reveals, winning an award tonight isn't the only way to win at the Golden Globes. When the best actor and supporting actress categories are introduced at the ceremony in Beverly Hills, two "Igby" clips will be broadcast, giving the movie the national network television exposure that was never part of its advertising budget. "And so many Oscar voters are going to see this show," Kops adds.

About 6,100 voters cast ballots for the Academy Awards, and for all its preposterousness, the Globes have become a popular event. Studios with films in Globes competition host swank after-parties (to which some academy voters are invited), and some of Hollywood's top studio executives (some of whom are Oscar voters) leave this week's Sundance Film Festival to attend the show.

"You need to make sure people are aware of the movie," "Igby" writer-director Burr Steers says a few days after the meeting. "And there's really no money to do it."

The Golden Globes arrival area, packed with paparazzi from every publication this side of the Recycler, might give "Nicholas Nickleby" stars Charlie Hunnam and Anne Hathaway even more free publicity. The only problem is that Hunnam and Hathaway each want to bring a guest to the show, and MGM doesn't have enough tickets to accommodate both of their dates.

After a spirited discussion, it is decided that since Hunnam plays the title character and Hathaway does not, he gets the extra ticket. But rather than let Hathaway go stag, a publicist suggests she pretend to be Hunnam's date as they stroll the red carpet, posing for scores of pictures and interviews. By acclamation, the idea is approved.

The Pitfalls

The subtle art of campaigning is to make sure you don't look like you are, well, campaigning. Sharon Stone's quest for a Golden Globe for "The Muse" was sunk when it was revealed she had sent $295 watches to voters, and "Moulin Rouge's" Oscar chances may have been undermined last year by the cavalcade of advertisements.

So to campaign without seeming to do so, studios often exploit that year-end perennial, the top 10 movie list. Like prospectors scouring scorched earth for one tiny gold flake, the publicity staffs for the major studios collect reams of newspapers and magazines to find mentions of the studio's films.

In the case of "Bowling for Columbine," MGM believes it has the goods to persuade Oscar voters to do what they've never done: nominate a documentary for best picture. Of the top-10 lists that MGM has surveyed, the documentary about America's obsession with firearms and fear has turned up on 152 tallies.

To locate all the outfits that listed "Bowling for Columbine" as one of the year's top films, MGM looked high, low and even sideways. Among those giving props to "Bowling": Atlanta's Creative Loafing (No. 7), World Socialist (No. 3), Baltimore's Patuxent Publishing (No. 5), and the online site Flipside Movie Emporium (No. 7).

No matter the methodology, "Bowling" is clearly one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and is the highest-grossing non-concert documentary. But how do you push a film into a category where no documentary has gone before and not split votes, thus hurting the film's chances for a documentary feature selection?

MGM's new "Bowling" advertisements in the Hollywood trade newspapers point out all the organizations that have named Moore's film the best picture of the year. And in the planning meeting it is announced that the Writers Guild of America has decided "Bowling" qualifies for the guild's screenplay award which, as United Artists' Dennis O'Connor notes, "definitely helps people think of it more as a film than a documentary." The team encourages its New York staff to try to plant the guild's decision in gossip columns.

Moore hopes the effort will be successful, but he is not making a big public drive.

"I'm not into the strategy of all this," he says later. "But the film really seems to be resonating with a lot of people. Richard Gere even called to see what he can do to help. And his film ["Chicago"] is up for best picture. Why would he want to help me?"

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