The Price of Reeling In an Oscar
By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 1999
LOS ANGELES Is it possible to spend your way to an Oscar?
That is the question that Hollywood insiders are posing as the aggressive art house studio Miramax continues to shell out millions of dollars for advertising in an effort to nab Academy Awards for its multi-nominated films "Shakespeare in Love" and "Life Is Beautiful."
The ads touting "Shakespeare's" Gwyneth Paltrow for Best Actress, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for Best Original Screenplay, John Madden for Best Director, and "Life Is Beautiful's" Roberto Benigni for Best Actor and Best Director have been blanketing the trade newspapers as glossy front-page wrappers. The studio has bought pricey television advertising in New York and Los Angeles where most Oscar voters live and is running full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. Voting ends March 16 at 5 p.m.
Miramax officials acknowledge spending close to $6 million on their Oscar campaign, but say that's not much more than they have spent other years. They also note that "Shakespeare" is in wide release, so even advertising aimed at the 5,500 voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences helps sell tickets.
Still, that $6 million is several times what the average member of the House spends to get reelected. For the same amount, you could run a successful U.S. Senate race in a medium-size state.
Even the once-scrappy Miramax is starting to recognize that its carpet-bombing campaign could be overkill.
"I hope we haven't" gone too far, says Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. "If we did, it's certainly going to make me reconsider next year. Everybody keeps saying it's such a tight race, and we certainly felt we were underdogs, so we wanted to call attention to the film. Maybe we did go too far. I hope not."
Miramax's heavy spending has pushed the Oscars' other leading contender, "Saving Private Ryan" of the studio DreamWorks SKG, to fork over an additional $2 million in its Oscar advertising on television and, in recent days, on full-page covers to the trade newspapers. DreamWorks also re-released the film after its nomination for 11 Academy Awards. "Shakespeare" was nominated 13 times.
"We are being forced to spend more money," says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press. "Within the realm of common sense, I felt I needed to respond. I needed to remind voters of the movie, and 'Ryan' is not an easy sit. So I needed to remind voters."
Other influential voices in Hollywood are saying that Oscar campaigns have begun to overshadow the awards themselves. They see the huge sums spent by Miramax as the culmination of an unwelcome trend in recent years.
"While you can't ultimately buy a nomination any more than you can a real election...the fact is everyone, my studio included, always seems to try," wrote Bill Mechanic, the chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, in the Hollywood Reporter recently. He noted, "Take a look: There are Academy campaigns that cost more than the movies they're promoting!"
That's probably true for small films like Miramax's "Life Is Beautiful" and Gramercy's period drama "Elizabeth," both Best Picture nominees this year that are being heavily touted in print and television advertisements.
Said one incensed studio executive, who refused to be quoted by name: "What Miramax is doing here in the Oscar campaign is destroying what legitimacy the Oscars have by turning it into a circus. By turning the Oscars into this death struggle and spending unbelievable amounts of money, they have succeeded in distorting the process."
But there are other criticisms of Miramax's heavy-handed push for the Oscars, a ceremony that the studio has increasingly come to dominate with award-winning films like "The English Patient" and "Good Will Hunting." Like all the other studios, Miramax sends out videocassettes of its movies to academy members. Last year the academy banned the use of phone banks, in which callers politely reminded voters of the nominated film.
Independent publicists hired every Oscar season by Miramax set up dinner parties for multiple nominee Benigni, a relative unknown in Hollywood, with influential academy members such as Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Jack Lemmon, ahead of nominations. Last month the studio gave a party at Elaine's in New York for Madden, the British director of "Shakespeare in Love," and some academy members were present.
Says Weinstein of the event at Elaine's: "There were three academy members there and 57 other people. It was a press event." Of the other events, he said many people in Hollywood were eager to meet Benigni.
Other studios have held similar dinner parties in the past, as Fine Line Features did two years ago for its multi-nominated "Shine," which won a Best Actor Oscar for Geoffrey Rush (who, by the way, is nominated this year for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Shakespeare in Love").
Ric Robertson, the executive administrator at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, says the academy may investigate whether the dinner parties amounted to personal lobbying, which is banned.
"If we had evidence that there was a real organized, ongoing campaign to approach academy members and reach voters that way, it's something we would take very seriously, just as we did when we heard of organized phone calling," he said.
But Robertson said he doesn't think the massive advertising can sway academy voters. "Our members are intelligent, sophisticated people. I don't think seeing the cover of the trades day in, day out is going to change the way they feel about a film."
Of course, there's more than the honor of an Oscar at stake. There's money. For small movies the gold statues can mean substantially more business at the box office. "The English Patient," which two years ago won nine Oscars, went on to rake in $150 million at the foreign box office afterward.
Oscar powerhouse Miramax is willing to discuss curtailing all the Oscar campaigns. "It might level the playing field, and that's always good," says Weinstein. "I'd certainly be willing to sit down with other companies, or the academy, and see if there's a way to make sense of this."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post