OSCAR GOLD DIGGERS

Times Staff Writer

Sony is laying off 1,700 U.S. employees. Time Warner wants to unload its music division. Disney has pink-slipped scores of animators in Paris, Tokyo and Orlando, Fla. It's penny-pinching time across Hollywood -- except when it comes to awards-season campaigning, where there's still plenty of room for $5,000-a-day hairstylists and $50,000-a-trip private jets.

Over the next 3 1/2 months, studios and independent film companies will lay out small fortunes -- perhaps as much as $20 million on just one movie -- promoting their films for the Oscars and dozens of other awards handed out by everybody from the American Cinema Editors to the Writers Guild of America.

Thanks mostly to a ban on sending free videocassettes and DVDs to many voters, campaign costs could be higher than ever, as film distributors have been forced to book screening rooms around the globe to showcase their films.

It's not simply the private previews that have made some awards campaigns cost more than the actual production budgets of several contending movies. Rather, it's the array of hidden costs of everything from celebrity grooming to antipiracy security guards that has turned the awards derby into a break-the-bank arms race. But no matter their ultimate cost, awards -- and the prestige and additional box-office returns they bring -- are irresistible.

"You [campaign] because in some cases your filmmakers have worked for years on their movies," says Dick Cook, whose Disney studios is making a big best-picture push for "Finding Nemo," perhaps the best-reviewed movie of the year. "Awards are very prestigious for a studio, for a film and for everyone associated with making it."

Deep-pocket studios such as 20th Century Fox and Miramax are able to absorb campaign costs without ruining the bottom line. The two companies are expected to spend huge sums promoting their respective epics "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and "Cold Mountain" for the glut of prizes that culminate with the Academy Awards, which will be presented Feb. 29, nearly a month earlier than this year's ceremony.

For the studios, the huge investment in Oscar campaigning -- including weeks of TV and print advertising -- is a relatively small share of the overall cost of making and marketing big-budget movies.

For smaller movie outfits, however, many of whom typically make the most artistically ambitious films, it's a struggle to keep pace. An extra $1 million spent pushing "Lost in Translation" for an Oscar, for instance, can spell the difference between a profit or a loss for the drama's distributor, Focus Features.

"There's only so much you can do to compete with the overwhelming spending," says Tom Ortenberg, whose Lions Gate Films is pushing its modestly budgeted releases "The Cooler," "Shattered Glass" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring" for awards consideration.

Yet the pressure to back a movie for awards consideration, driven in part by the financial windfall that comes with winning a top honor, is so intense that producers and distributors have no recourse but to join the trophy chase, no matter how expensive the contest has become.

"It puts us in a much tougher position," says Bob Berney of Newmarket Films, the distributor of awards hopefuls "Whale Rider" and the upcoming "Monster." "It just means we will have to spend more."

Because of a recent deal struck between the seven major studios and the organization that hands out the Academy Awards, the studios and their specialized film units can send free videocassettes of their films only to the 5,800 Academy Awards voters.

To spark interest from the tens of thousands of other voters who decide every other Hollywood trophy, film distributors must pry these voters from their living rooms and get them into movie theaters.

One solution was obvious. Just as the best-known performers can help sell tickets at the multiplex, they also can lure hundreds of voters to private screenings. After all, where else can the audience chat up "Master and Commander's" Russell Crowe?

Oscar guidelines prevent trotting out stars to Academy Awards screenings, but there is nothing to stop talent from participating in question-and-answer discussions during the scores of screenings for the Hollywood unions that hand out trophies before the Oscars. In the last week alone, "21 Grams" star Naomi Watts attended three industry screenings of her film.

Renting a small screening room costs about $600 a showing, depending on the city, and it can cost as much as $4,000 to rent a posh, stadium-seating theater for a night. Additional costs can include security ($1,500 a night), audience snacks and parking.

But it's those special screenings and other events that include a personal appearance by an actor that have become financially prohibitive, the studios say.

Many leading stars haven't seen the inside of a commercial airplane in years. The round-trip cost of renting a large private jet for them can run $50,000, a lot more from Europe, and that doesn't include peanuts or pretzels. It can easily cost another $1,000 to cater the plane.

But that's only half the battle. The one cost that has become the fiercest combat zone centers on hair, makeup and clothing stylists that A-listers insist upon having whenever they walk down the red carpet.

"This is the biggest single issue that people are talking about," says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press. "It's out of control. It is mind-boggling what these people get to blow-dry hair. They are now treated as if they are the talent."

Top hairstylists such as Sally Hershberger (Meg Ryan), Serge Normant (Julia Roberts) and Oribe (Jennifer Lopez) charge $5,000 and up per day for their show business super cuts.

In addition to paying a daily tariff, a studio hiring the celebrated barbers also can fork out an extra 20% agency fee, a 4% beauty tax for New York work, and overtime.

Not just women insist on specific haircutters. Some men, including a few bald actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, also require personal hairstylists. (Jackson's longtime hairstylist, Robert Stevenson, shaves the actor's head.) Makeup and clothing stylists can cost just as much.

In addition, most stylists charge for travel time and shopping time -- a clothing stylist who spends three days pulling dresses and gowns can easily bill $10,000, and that doesn't include the actual cost of the clothes, not all of which are donated by designers, several executives say.

The foremost stylists often will accept nothing less than first-class airplane tickets, and may prefer certain airlines, even if a studio has negotiated discounted rates with a different carrier. Those plane tickets can add another $7,000, and stylists often stipulate on staying at the same lavish hotels as the performers, which can cost $700 a night and more. Private car service, which can total $400 an hour, adds to the tab, as does a $100 per diem.

"It's just wacko," says Miramax spokeswoman Amanda Lundberg. If a studio balks at hiring an actor's preferred stylist, the performer might either decline to make a publicity appearance or call the studio chief to complain, Lundberg says.

"So you are at the mercy of these people," she says of the stylists. "I value their work and respect the art of hairstyling and makeup. But they have made a mockery of their own profession because the demands are just so crazy."

Before you know it, the price tag for one actor's appearance for just one night has surpassed $100,000.

Not all actors are such expensive dates. Jessica Lange isn't above flying commercially; George Clooney and Sean Penn don't care for stylists; and Patricia Clarkson -- who stars in two Oscar hopefuls, "Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent" -- puts on her own makeup and does her own hair.

Even Pat Kingsley, a veteran publicist who handles many of the stars who charge the most for grooming, says the stylist issue has become divisive.

"I'm sometimes surprised by what these people cost, and I can't imagine the studios aren't upset," Kingsley says. "But it is an art, and they should be rewarded for that."

Hershberger, whose Manhattan salon cuts can cost $600 apiece, says she's worth it. "Hair can be the first thing you notice about a person," Hershberger says. "And I'm not holding a gun to anyone's head. People comment, 'Oh, she's so expensive.' But that's the way it is."

As in past years, many awards expenditures are earmarked to advertisements in Hollywood trade newspapers. Some of these ads, which can cost $40,000 apiece, merely remind voters of certain films or performances, but many more this year are required to publicize the countless screenings.

Almost every studio enlists awards consultants to generate buzz and coordinate promotions; New Line Cinema has hired no fewer than five consultants to plug its best picture contender, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

To reach every possible voter, the studios are booking screening rooms everywhere. In Hawaii, an end-of-the-year screening program organized by the Maui Film Festival will showcase Warner Bros.' "The Last Samurai," Sony's "Something's Gotta Give" and Miramax's "Cold Mountain." Said festival founder Barry Rivers: "So many people for the industry are here on Maui, and it's a way to reach out to them."

The cheapest awards campaign thus costs no less than $750,000. "And I'm a little concerned about what will happen next year," says Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker, who is worried that even Oscar voters will no longer be permitted to receive free videocassettes and DVDs, driving screening costs even higher.

Yet despite all the added expense, most film distributors aren't about to abandon the awards race. It's easy to understand why. When Lions Gate's "Monster's Ball" star Halle Berry took the 2002 best actress Oscar, her nomination and subsequent win probably added $15 million to the film's box-office returns and another $10 million to its video receipts, Ortenberg says. Not bad for an awards campaign that cost less than $1 million.

With so much money being spent on awards promotions, sometimes it's the smaller -- and most inspired -- touches that can make a difference.

Indeed, on one recent day, Fox Searchlight marketing chief Nancy Utley was at her daughter's elementary school putting up fliers promoting screenings for Searchlight's "In America" and "Thirteen." The fliers might yield only one vote, but who's to say it's not the difference between winning and losing?

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Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.

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