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Campaigning Hollywood style

Despite wobbly economy, marketing blitz to influence Oscar votes is in full force.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

BOB STAAKE

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Hollywood, Calif.

The presidential campaign may be over, but the nation's second-most-watched "campaign" – the race to take home that golden statuette affectionately known as Oscar – still has nearly three weeks to go. Feb. 17 is the deadline for the nearly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to cast their final votes for the Feb. 22 ceremony.

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The stakes may be decidedly lower – these are, after all, movie awards, not portentous decisions about cabinet postings – but the results are every bit as close to many a fan's heart in the show's global audience. And while the average Oscar-night viewer might not realize it, those awards are as fought over, campaigned for, and strategized about as any presidential race. Some campaigns, such as the bid for a Best Picture Oscar for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," are estimated to have budgets over $10 million.

"I was a professional marketer before I realized this was going on," says Marian Salzman, a New York City chief marketing officer with public relations agency Porter Novelli. "When I learned about it from friends in the film industry I have to admit I was surprised at just how extensive it is." [Editor's Note: The original version misstated the nature of the Porter Novelli agency.]

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin adds, "Most people outside of Los Angeles or possibly New York have very little idea this is going on."

Oscar campaigns – which differ from overall movie marketing in that they target the Academy voters with everything from swanky fetes; special screenings, complete with Q-and-A sessions with a film's stars; trade publication ads that read "For your consideration;" and personal DVD mailings – are relatively new in the ceremony's 80-year history. Despite the fact that the Oscar telecast began as a marketing tool for the young broadcast medium back in 1953, the academy has actively discouraged any public jostling for the prizes. The facade of discretion was dropped, though, with the arrival of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein with his multimillion-dollar academy membership blitz that industry conventional wisdom credits with snagging a 1998 Best Picture win for Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love."

Despite tougher rules from the academy, which threatens to withhold tickets to the ceremony from offenders, Oscar campaigns are the norm these days. Back in 2005, the Oscar campaign allocation for a tiny, $6 million film, "Crash," was $4 million. In a strong field of contenders with budgets many sizes larger, "Crash" went on to win Best Picture.

"A lot of the people who do these events, do them because everybody else is doing them," says Mistyka Garcia, owner of Special Occasion Event Planning, which handles many Oscar campaign events. "Nobody can afford not to."

The bad economy has put a huge dent in the overall business spending for Oscar wins, a fact duly noted by Ms. Garcia.

"Last year, we had plenty of sit-down dinners," with six-figure budgets, she says. This season, it's all cocktail parties with an average tab of $50,000 – and no extra-themed décor, her firm's specialty. "This year, for example, I have clients saying to me they only want a rented bar, no custom work," she adds.

To be sure, in an industry where artists often hold their noses as they mingle with the entrepreneurs who make their mass media art possible, the sometimes shameless angling for praise produces yearly howls from both the media that cover it and the stars that populate it.

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