Campaigning Hollywood style

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

Timothy A. CLARY/AFP/Newscom
And the winner is... Gwyneth Paltrow for Best Actress in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ in 1999.

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.

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.

Major stars such as Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson have been widely quoted voicing frustration, saying that the awards should reflect merit and not sheer marketing muscle. And Los Angeles Times industry columnist Patrick Goldstein chided the whole town for getting caught up in a race for "silly prizes."

"It's bad for the entire industry," says Mr. Goldstein, who points out that smaller studios, those more likely to usher in high-quality fare, can ill afford to mount pricey bids, especially in tough times.

Mr. Weinstein, however, counters this assertion. "Oscar campaigns are still effective," he writes in an e-mail, "but that's not to say smaller companies with smaller budgets are necessarily at any sort of disadvantage." Smaller films and performances, he points out, still get noticed without big campaigns.

All this grumbling is mere chaff in the ineluctable machinery of Hollywood filmmaking, says Douglas Gomery, a film historian and professor at the University of Maryland. "It's disingenuous to complain about the demands of selling a film," he says. "This is mass media and it needs to make a profit.... Even the smallest film company has to have at least one successful film in a year or it can't survive."

Despite wins for "Shakespeare in Love" and "Crash," it is not always clear which tactics are truly effective.

One Hollywood insider, who asked to remain anonymous, says the Q-and-A events are often "a ridiculous waste of everyone's time and money." He describes boring sessions in which audience members seize the moment to harangue industry members and stars "who roll their eyes at the long-winded" and often tiresome attendees.

Another academy voter, who asked that her name be withheld, says she "despises" the intense pressure of these marketing campaigns and only votes for what she really likes. And then there are the well-circulated stories of older academy voters who make little effort to actually view the films but rather vote for their friends in the industry.

Money by itself can do little, film critic Mr. Maltin says. He recalls Cannon Films, a company with a "very mixed slate" of movies, that took out huge and expensive trade ads touting what were clearly noncontenders. "The money got them nowhere," he says.

Even campaigns for worthy projects can rub voters the wrong way, points out marketing pro Jeff Rose. Academy members often remind the business professionals that it is they – not the companies – who decide what's worthy. As evidence of this, Mr. Rose points to the surprise nominations of Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins, performers in two microbudget films whose studios mounted little targeted promotion for their nomination.

As ratings for awards shows continue to slide – viewership for last year's Oscar telecast slipped from the previous year by 20 percent – the academy is eager to avoid giving finicky viewers any reason to stay away, says Ric Robertson, executive administrator for AMPAS.

Indeed, says Porter Novelli's Ms. Salzman, the campaigns run counter to what she calls a particularly American sensibility, namely the desire to see pure talent win the day. "We want to know that the scholarship kid can triumph over the legacy kid," she says. "It's similar to the way we feel about beauty pageants. There's something we don't like about a contestant who has plastic surgery or an athlete who takes steroids. It's just not fair. It's just not who we are." [Editor's Note: The original version misspelled Ms. Salzman's name.]

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