A Blockbuster Campaign Can Be as Good as Gold

Times Staff Writers

Barely any A-list stars showed up at the Four Seasons Hotel for the “Maria Full of Grace” reception, just one of countless Oscar get-out-the-vote efforts that surface during awards season each year. A handful of people made cocktail party chatter with director Joshua Marston and star Catalina Sandino Moreno, sampled a few drab appetizers, then quickly went on their way, most with a modest parting gift: a copy of the film’s DVD.

The “Sideways” blowout a few weeks later stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hundreds of top show business talent and Oscar voters jammed the restaurant Vibrato, where they drank expensive Hitching Post Pinot Noir by the gallon. On stage, the film’s composer, Rolfe Kent, jammed with a jazz band.

Maybe only the naive consider the Academy Awards to be an evenhanded referendum on the best films, but rarely has it devolved into such a marked battle between the haves and the have-nots as it has with this year’s motley crop of large and small contenders.

Desperate to adorn their films with the valuable Oscar seal of approval, well-heeled studios now spend as much as $15 million promoting the award chances for such movies as “The Aviator” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Other films, such as “Finding Neverland” and “Hotel Rwanda,” try to stay in the race with a fraction of that.

“It’s gotten out of control,” said John Daly, executive producer of best picture winners “Platoon” and “The Last Emperor.” “And the costs have become prohibitive for a smaller film. You may not be cutting into the profits. You may not even have any profits.”


Unlike last year, when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” dominated the Oscars, there is no clear favorite in the best picture race, making Hollywood look a lot like a presidential election battleground state, with studios scouring for every possible vote, often at a steep financial and personal price.

According to several experts and competitors, Warner Bros. and Miramax have spent about $15 million each on the campaigns for “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Aviator.” That’s almost what it cost to make best picture nominee “Sideways.”

Pinpointing the exact campaign budgets is as elusive as getting a look at the next “Star Wars” screenplay. Both Miramax and Warner Bros. said they spent only $4 million on the Oscar push for “The Aviator” and “Million Dollar Baby,” respectively. (A Warners spokesman, discussing “Million Dollar Baby,” said that studio’s figure doesn’t include the cost of promoting the film’s theatrical release.)

Yet, even the makers of some of this year’s best picture nominees say the spending is out of control. “The time and money that goes into these campaigns is so disproportionate to the budgets of the films,” said “Sideways” producer Michael London. “The more money other people spend, the more you have to spend to remain competitive.”

In fact, “Sideways’ ” push hasn’t been insignificant, costing an estimated $10 million, said one participant, although a studio spokesman insists that “it’s millions less than that.”

“Someone needs to rein in the whole system,” London said.

Thus far the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which should be in the best position to do so, has had little success. “The only answer is that everyone join together and take up something like the salary cap in sports or campaign contributions in political campaigns,” London said.

Added Richard Gladstein, producer of best picture nominee “Finding Neverland”: “Once you’ve been nominated, that’s the place to stop” campaigning for awards.

The disparity between the Oscar rich and poor this year is stark. Paramount Pictures spent almost $200,000 to fly Mick Jagger and his entourage on a private jet to the Golden Globe Awards -- and he didn’t even end up with an Oscar nomination for best original song for “Alfie.”

On the other hand, the complete Oscar budget for “Maria Full of Grace,” whose star garnered a best actress nomination, totals less than $1 million. The awards budget for “Vera Drake,” another film with a best actress contender, is about $2 million.

The spending variance even exists between different divisions of the same conglomerate. New Line Cinema’s “Maria Full of Grace,” with star Sandino Moreno, is going up against Hilary Swank and “Million Dollar Baby,” which was released by Warner Bros. Both are owned by Time Warner Inc.

The tough reality for smaller movies is that an Academy Award can be far more beneficial to them than to a blockbuster, helping turn an art film from a money-losing labor of love into a box-office hit.

“Sideways,” the critically acclaimed dark comedy about two Pinot-swilling guys on a wine-country road trip, has seen its box-office gross soar to $59 million -- partly because of its five Oscar nominations and Fox Searchlight’s aggressive campaign on its behalf.

“You might want to look like you came out of nowhere,” said Bruce Feldman, an Oscar consultant on this year’s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” who has campaigned in years past for “Gladiator,” “Schindler’s List” and “Shrek.” “But to do that, you have to spend.”

All the same, if “Hotel Rwanda” distributor MGM spent $10 million on its Oscar campaign, it could wipe out all the film’s profits. (MGM is spending a little more than $1 million, which includes promoting a best actor nomination for star Don Cheadle, best supporting actress for Sophie Okonedo and best original screenplay for Keir Pearson and Terry George.)

Of other movies’ lavish campaigns, Peter Adee, MGM’s worldwide marketing president, said: “We can’t compete on that level, and we don’t remotely think that we should. A lot of people have subscribed to the theory that more is better. Well, we don’t have more, so we have to be better.”

As recently as 1989, “Driving Miss Daisy” won best picture without much of a campaign. That was before the advent of Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein, who is largely credited (or blamed) with turning the Oscar campaign season into a high-cost, bare-knuckles brawl, engineering such upsets as the 1998 period comedy “Shakespeare in Love’s” win over Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan.”

More recently, Universal Pictures spent small fortunes pushing the Oscar chances for its “A Beautiful Mind” (which won the top Oscar) and “Seabiscuit” (which did not). This year, the studio is spending heavily on “Ray.”

Winning an Oscar still means a spike in theater ticket sales. And with DVD sales and rentals now representing more than 60% of a studio’s revenue, spending even as much as $15 million on an Academy Award campaign can be a good investment. In this 15-minute culture, Oscar is one brand that lasts.

“That money comes back in spades in terms of more rentals, more sell-through [video purchases], more television fees.... The bottom line is those awards have a life probably as long as that statue,” said Russell Schwartz, president of marketing for New Line, which took home a bushel of Oscars last year for the third part of its “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Craig Kornblau, president of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, said a film needs to capitalize on the lead-up to the Oscars, when the buzz is at its peak. It’s why, only a week after “Ray” received Oscar nominations for best picture, director and actor, the studio released the DVD. “It’s already sold almost 5 million units,” Kornblau said, “and generated consumer spending of about $90 million.”

Had the studio held the DVD release until after the Oscars, as it did for “The Pianist” two years ago, “I don’t believe we would have done as well,” he said.

Not every studio embraces this strategy. One studio home video executive said that -- with certain exceptions, such as smaller films -- DVD sales begin to decline five months after a film’s theatrical release, even with an Oscar.

But how does an Oscar campaign end up costing $15 million? Let us count the ways:

* Teams of Oscar consultants: $15,000 a month per person.

* Catered screenings: $10,000 per showing.

* One DVD mailer to each of the 5,808 Oscar voters: as much as $10 a screener.

* A four-page gatefold ad in Variety: $137,660.

* A three-day, two-page color ad in the Los Angeles Times: as much as $255,727.

* Clothes and hair stylist for an actress: $10,000 a day.

If you’re a smaller film with less cash to spend, you cut your cocktail parties (or serve only beer and wine), trim your screenings (and rely on DVDs), and insist that all of your talent fly commercial (but still in first class, of course).

If you’re lucky enough to have a film like “Sideways,” people are happy to lend their names and wares. Winemakers queued up to donate cases of wine, directors Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers held a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, and the New York Public Theater sponsored the Vibrato party and a similar event in New York.

“Hotel Rwanda” has also benefited from the political nature of the film, as Cheadle ended up touring Sudan with a congressional delegation, then served as the primary correspondent for a two-part special report on that nation on ABC’s “Nightline.”

The cost is not purely financial: Stars of the movies can do little else but travel the world promoting their films and by extension their own Oscar chances.

On the day the nominations were announced, Okonedo said she began doing interviews “in my jogging bottoms” and hasn’t stopped since, separately flying back and forth between her native England and New York and L.A. several times. Forty minutes after the nominations were announced, the British tabloids had staked out her grandmother’s house. “This kind of attention is so unusual,” said the actress. “I don’t have a million assistants to sort me out.”

Fine Line Features not only played host to 100 screenings of “Vera Drake” for women’s groups, but also brought best actress nominee Imelda Staunton to a junket for the upcoming Kevin Costner/Joan Allen film “The Upside of Anger” (in which she does not appear), offering her up as a freebie interview to the world’s media. Even after being interviewed every 45 minutes, the indefatigable Staunton refused to concede exhaustion, or heaven forbid, boredom.

“I love talking about the film,” the British actress said. “It’s the best thing I will ever do. And it will all be over in 15 minutes, won’t it? And then I’ll never have to talk about it again.”

No matter how much is spent or how many miles are logged, there are countless examples of nominees who have done little or no campaigning walking off with the Oscar, such as the 2002 Holocaust drama “The Pianist,” which picked up two top Oscars: best actor (Adrien Brody) and best director (Roman Polanski). Polanski, a fugitive from the United States who lives in France, barely gave an interview to promote the film.

Even Weinstein, the P.T. Barnum of Oscar campaigning, said that because of his company’s recent financial constraints he had been more frugal with his Oscar spending. “We’ve learned you don’t have to spend,” said Weinstein, who has two films in the race, “The Aviator” and “Finding Neverland.” “It really is the movie that counts.”

The company isn’t even promoting the best picture chances for “Neverland” (though that may have more to do with the extreme longshot standing of the film than with any sudden conversion to Oscar campaign reform.)

And then there are those who have already spent and lost, even before Sunday’s 77th Oscar show begins. Warner Independent Pictures mounted an aggressive campaign to get the French-language romantic drama “A Very Long Engagement” Oscar glory but ended up with only nominations for art direction and cinematography.

Sighed Mark Gill, president of Warners’ specialty label, “All the campaigning effort in the world is not, unfortunately, enough, if academy voters don’t love your movie.”



$15-million-dollar man

A full-scale Academy Awards campaign now costs up to

$15 million. Although studios guard actual Oscar budgets, here’s what a hypothetical best picture Oscar spending plan looks like:



Includes TV spots, ads in Hollywood trades and newspapers, and online spots, plus design and production fees.



Before thousands of DVDs are mailed to the 5,808 Oscar voters, addresses must be verified and the movies must be encrypted and duplicated.



Includes catered cocktail parties, question-and-answer sessions, security and parking.


Miscellaneous mail

Studios love sending swag such as “Kinsey” picnic baskets and glossy books commemorating the making of the films.



In addition to mailing DVDs, numerous screenings are held in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and London.

Source: Times research

Times staff writer Mary McNamara and correspondent Chris Lee contributed to this report.