Oscar campaigns may be over-the-top, but they keep otherwise-endangered movies alive

As the Academy Awards ceremony approaches on Sunday, the race for best picture seems more wide open than ever, with three movies — “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” — the clear front-runners, but with beloved engines-that-could like “Philomena” and “Nebraska” considered potential spoilers.

The tight race has resulted in one of the more lively and big-spending campaign seasons in recent memory, with the famously aggressive Oscar-monger Harvey Weinstein cutting his usual extravagant swath between Hollywood and Washington and beyond. This year, he orchestrated a barnstorming tour for Philomena Lee — the real-life subject of “Philomena,” which chronicles her years-long search for her biological son — by not only arranging photo-ops for Lee with members of U2 but also bringing her to Capitol Hill to lobby for adoption rights and even to meet Pope Francis. (Weinstein is, after all, the man who delivered Michelle Obama via satellite to the Oscars last year; where else to go but the Vatican?)

Weinstein’s awards push also serves as a reminder of why the awards season, with its Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Academy luncheons, panel discussions and attention-getting stops in Washington and Rome, is good not just for the winners but for the also-rans — and, ultimately, audiences. As crazy, cutthroat and profligately self-indulgent as awards season can get, it has created a discrete, self-sustaining economy for films that might otherwise be extinct — or at least gravely endangered — within the larger cinematic ecosystem.

With big studios increasingly focused on making “tent-pole” pictures with pre-sold audiences — often based on comic books, young adult novels and multi-sequeled franchises — they’ve largely gotten out of the business of producing modestly budgeted, special effects-free movies aimed at adults.

But they’ll still make exceptions to that formula for potential Oscar-winners. Not only do Academy Awards lend prestige, credibility and creative gratification that studio executives still crave, but the awards campaigns — which can cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million — allow them to market their movies for a fraction of the $75 million they’ve been known to spend on their summertime spectacles. Think of it this way: Each red carpet moment featuring Oscar-nominated Lupita Nyong’o in couture Dior — pure manna for the insatiable maw of TV and online entertainment news — constitutes free advertising for her movie “12 Years a Slave.”

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The most recent beneficiaries of that strategy have been best-picture nominees “American Hustle” — which has grossed nearly $144 million domestically, nearly $40 million of it earned after the nominations were announced Jan. 16 — and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which has grossed $112 million and has enjoyed a 36 percent increase in business post-nomination.

Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, notes that films such as “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty” experienced even more dramatic benefits last year. “The films last year were timed perfectly to benefit from Oscar bumps,” Contrino says. “This year, a lot of nominees, like ‘Gravity’ and ‘Captain Phillips,’ had already opened and made a ton of money by the time the nominations were announced.”

But more than ever, the awards-season strategy has resulted in a back-loaded, bottle-necked year, with a glut of A-plus movies opening in November and December; a lingering question is whether the engines-that-could will suffer. Take “Nebraska.” Alexander Payne’s black-and-white, serio-comic road picture has experienced a healthy post-nomination increase in business — 88 percent — but its box-office numbers are modest, around $16.5 million. (Similarly “Her” had a 118 percent Oscar bump but has earned a relatively anemic $24 million.)

But for “Nebraska’s” producers, Oscar season has paid off. Early on, Paramount Pictures saw awards potential for the film, and the studio has carefully navigated it from a splashy premiere at Cannes through dozens of smaller festivals (including the Middleburg Film Festival last October), almost always with “Nebraska” star Bruce Dern on hand to win over audiences with hilarious yarns and self-effacing charm. With festivals having generated enthusiastic word-of-mouth, “Nebraska” opened in a handful of theaters in November, just in time to garner stellar reviews and attention from critics’ groups and guilds.

“The last part of the strategy was going to be Oscar nominations,” says Albert Berger, who co-produced “Nebraska” with his partner Ron Yerxa at Bona Fide Films. “It was critical for Paramount’s desire to go wider with the movie that we get some nominations and the right kind of nominations. So that was the final push.”

“Nebraska” wound up earning six Oscar nominations, including best picture, as well as best director for Payne and best actor for Dern. So far, the $13 million film has brought in $16.5 million at the box office, and it is poised to break even or make a modest profit (it comes out on DVD and Blu-ray this week). Whereas “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Dallas Buyers Club” have all benefited from discernible Oscar bumps, “Nebraska,” along with Spike Jonze’s “Her,” hasn’t caught fire as much as percolated at a slow, steady burn.

“It’s such an accessible, relatable film, I don’t know why we didn’t connect beyond the confines of a major-city art-house audience,” Berger says, noting that one reason might be the crowded marketplace for great movies at the end of 2013. “But it’s nothing that a good showing at the Academy Awards won’t help.” In the meantime, he says, within a scrum of bigger movies and noisier campaigns, “Paramount has managed to keep us in the conversation, and certainly we were there strong enough to get the nominations we got. So they really did handle it beautifully.”

If Oscar campaigning this year has been intense, it’s been relatively free of the kind of negative campaigning that some competitors have resorted to in years past. Indeed, just last year “Zero Dark Thirty” fell victim to some of the most vicious smear tactics in recent memory, when Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) attacked the film for distorting the role torture played in the search for Osama bin Laden, and pundits and Academy members gleefully piled on, whether they’d seen the film or not.

This year, the mudslinging has been kept to a minimum: The biggest controversy so far was in the best-song category, when composer and Academy music branch executive committee member Bruce Broughton e-mailed his fellow branch members encouraging them to vote for his song, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” from a movie of the same name. The song did receive an Oscar nod, but when Academy brass got wind of Broughton’s lobbying, the nomination was rescinded.

In fact, most of the negativity this year has swirled outside the Academy’s gates. Starting in November in Vanity Fair magazine and escalating soon after the Golden Globes ceremony in January, Mia Farrow and her children Ronan and Dylan took to social and legacy media to remind filmgoers (and, presumably, Oscar voters) of decades-old charges of sexual abuse against Woody Allen. Dylan Farrow, writing on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s blog, even went so far as calling out actress Cate Blanchett — nominated for the best actress Oscar for her role in Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” — for working with an alleged pedophile.

Few observers believe that “Blue Jasmine’s” competitors are involved with the Farrows’ public comments — even Weinstein, they say, wouldn’t go that far. But the fact that the Farrows are leveraging awards season for their own, deeply personal awareness campaign speaks to how high the stakes can get. Not a few studio executives believe it’s all gone too far, pointing out that, for the price of a typical awards campaign, a filmmaker could fund a “Philomena” or a “Nebraska” or a “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles has been a vociferous critic of expensive Oscar campaigns, contending that the spending too often eats into the bottom lines of films that are already barely profitable. “The overall economy of chasing Oscars is one of the worst business strategies you can undertake,” Bowles says. “The staggering amounts of money lost transcend the very few number of people who come out okay on it.”

Bowles came in for considerable criticism last year when he refused to finance a full-blown campaign for Ann Dowd, whose supporting performance in the film “Compliance” was considered by many to be Oscar-worthy. Although Magnolia produced DVDs to mail to Academy members, Dowd underwrote much of the campaign (she wound up not getting nominated).

“An award for her would have meant a lot more for her than for the film or for us,” Bowles says simply, adding that most of the pressure to campaign comes from agents and talent managers. “They don’t care if the film makes a profit or not — they want their client to be exalted so they can go on to get bigger paydays,” he says. “That’s fine, but don’t ask me to lose money for that quest.”

The downside of Bowles’s hard-nosed thrift, some observers say, is that Magnolia may not be seen as a studio willing to go to the mat for its artists. Then again, it helps if you have deep pockets. Producer Ted Hope, whose Oscar-nominated films include “The Savages,” “In the Bedroom” and Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet,” points to investor Megan Ellison, whose company Annapurna Pictures financed Oscar contenders such as “The Master,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and this year’s “American Hustle” and “Her” as an example.

“I have no idea what kind of money Annapurna has made on the films they’ve facilitated over the last three years,” says Hope, who recently became chief executive of the online film site Fandor. “But I can tell you if I was working with an A-list filmmaker right now on a super-ambitious project that needed to be handled with complexity, style and grace, I would want to bring it to them. What they’ve done by spending the money both in production and presumably the marketing around the awards, is make themselves an A-plus talent magnet. Which could very well keep them going for as long as they want.”

The same reasoning, he says, goes for distributors such as the Weinstein Company and Sony Pictures Classics — each of which has become known for running effective campaigns for Oscar nominations and wins — as well as newcomer Netflix, which has underwritten a conspicuous billboard campaign in Los Angeles for “The Square,” a festival favorite that the company acquired in November. That film, by Jehane Noujaim, earned the company its first Oscar nomination, for best documentary. Much like its investment in “House of Cards,” the campaign for “The Square” sends a signal to artists that Netflix is a Hollywood player, and it gives Netflix leverage for negotiating lower outlays when it buys their next films.

Netflix’s billboards have been the subject of some tut-tutting in traditional documentary circles. But sometimes questionable taste can strike a blow for discerning taste in a larger sense. For audiences hungry for more movies like “The Square” — and “Nebraska,” “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena” — bigger, brasher Oscar seasons may represent something of a last best hope.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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