THE MAKING of the Academy Awards campaign for "The Deer Hunter" was a case study of what happens when a major studio incorporates a run for the Oscar into its overall marketing strategy for a commercially shaky film.
Only eight months agogo "The Deer Hunter" was both a box-office long shot and an Oscar dark horse.
By the end of the Academy Awards telecast early Tuesday morning, the grueling, blood-soaked epic about the effect of the Vietnam war on three American friends had won five Oscars, including best picture of the year.
The question is - ehow did it happen?
Evexutive at Universal - which helped British giant EMI with financing for the film, in a swap for U.S. distribution rights - aren't talking on the record, but the answer seems to be in the familiar combination of timing and exposure.
Sources inside peg the budget for "The Deer Hunter" Oscar push at round $250,000, and it's a good guess that a large share of that promotional pie was eaten up by a sophisticated print advertising campaign designed exclusively for people in the movie industry.
It was a campaign the general public never saw, detailed in three separate steps, most of which are common if seldom as elaborate.
Just before the opening of the film, a lavishly illustrated supplement appeared in Daily Variety listing only the screen credits for the film and excerpts from positive reviews.
The second insert in the series bore the antlers and parachute film logo in red ink on the cover and announced the 11 nomination categories that "Deer Hunter" sought. Again, critical reaction and lots of photos were the hallmarks of the piece.
Finally, a week before the final ballots were mailed out, a third insert appeared, listing the nine nominations for "Deer Hunter," stressing critical praise and offering a two-page collage of trade-paper headlines that told of healthy box-office business for the film.
Not only did the insert approach enable the movie to get its message across in a self-contained format without competition from other ads for other movies, but each insert also did double duty as a mailing piece to Academy voters. Universal used the mail-boxes of the voting membership to encourage them to come to any of the scheduled studio screenings. (To avoid conflicting screening times, the studio literally draws its Academy screening days and times out of a hat. Most studios don't use each of their allotted opportunities to show their film. Universal did.)
In concert with the move to draw Academy members to the screenings, Universal assigned a staffer the task of keeping tabs on how many voters had shown their Academy cards to see the film. The week before the final ballots were even mailed out, Universal logs showed that more than 2,400 of the 2,700 local voters had seen the movie.
Universal executives were quick to emphasize that the film itself was the focus of their carefully planned assault on the award. "We knew we had a brilliant film," says one top Universal executive.
Universal may have "known" about the content of the film but they were admittedly at a loss on how to sell it. The people who take up the top floors in the Universal "black tower" weren't sure if "Deer Hunter" would earn back its reported $13.5-million budget.
Enter Alan Carr, former manager of Ann-Margret, producer of "Grease" and "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (with Robert Stigwood). A flamboyant figure on the movie scene, Carr is known for his opulent entertaining, custom-tailored dashikis and his flair of hype.
"I was sitting in my cabana drinking champagne," Carr recalled. "I had 'Grease' about to make $100 million, movie offers from every studio, and a fund-raising dinner for Gov. Brown coming up at my house" - when Carr was aked to take a look at "Deer Hunter."
"I knew I wouldn't like it. It's about two things I don't care about: Vietnam and poor people, directed by this guy [Michael] Climino who I remember directing Ann-Margret in Canada Dry ads five years ago. Three hours of Pittsburgh steelworkers. I'm not going to like it."
On July 14 last year, Carr, after "lunch at my hangout, Ma Maison," went to see the film "for friendship reasons."
"I'm a half-hour late and I'm the only one there. So the picture starts. By the middle of the movie I was crying so hard I had to go to the bathroom to put cold water on my face. And again at the end. I'm having a dinner for Gov. Brown that night at my house and I'm truly emotionally undone. I apologize to ghe governor, whom I have never met, and say I have been affected by this film so deeply I cannot speak." (The governor's reaction was not reported.)
The next day Carr was invited to a meeting at Universal. He was asked a simple question: Could "The Deer Hunter" bring in box office?
"I sensed right away this is an event movie," Carr told Universal. "It's not 'Grease' where it's 90 minutes, in-out and turn over the [box office] grosses. Audiences will have to be educated that it's not a case of get the baby sitter, eat popcorn and dance around the theater."
From that moment on, Carr claimed, "it was all a plan." Denying a rumored fee of $150,000, Carr said, "I asked to work on this film for free." (It should be noted, however, that Carr has a deal of his own with EMI.)
"I convinced them [Universal] that they had to open the movie out of town, in Chicago ro Detroit. L.A. is jaded and spoiled by the movies. At previews in Westwood, they cheer for Telly Savalas chasing an airplane." (His reference was to Savalas' role in "Capricorn One.")
Carr set up a screening for two influential directors, Steve Spielberg ("Jaws," Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and Vincente Minnelli ("An American in Paris" and "Gigi," 1958's Best Picture), symbolizing differing age and artistic factions in the directing community. Although he wasn't saying, it seems clear that Carr was gambling on their good words spreading, in hopes that they would carry clout in getting "Deer Hunter" a Best Director award from the Directors Guild of America.
The DGA award is critical. It sends a strong signal to the Academy, broadcasting who the directors themselves consider to have been best during the past year. Although DGA spokesman Joe Youngerman claimed the announcement of the DGA award is coincidental - "Our timing is like that because we have less rigamarole than the Academy and we like to have our awards dinner-dance around St. Patrick's Day" - it's hard to discount the notion that the DGA vote is meant to be taken seriously by the Academy.
Although the Directors' branch of the Academy picks the Best Director nominees for the Oscar and the entire voting membership of the Academy makes the final decision, psychologically the DGA is important as a harbinger of Best Picture. For 18 of the last 20 years, the DGA-named Director of the Year worked on the film that won Best Picture on Oscar night.
This year, the DGA singled out "Deer Hunter" director Cimino for its award.
Carr next convinced Universal to hold back the movie from a general September release. He wanted to aim instead at a limited-engagement run on both coasts at year's end. (The minimum necessary to qualify for the Oscar is a one-week run in Los Angeles before the end of the year.)
"I said if we can't sell out Westwood and the Coronet (in New York) with this film for one week, I'm leaving the business," said Carr.
"I knew it would be the Christmas cocktail party subject in New York. Everybody would be asking if you saw it, were you one of the 500 people who saw one of the eight shows? They said I shouldn't give a film to New York and take it away. I said that's how you treat New Yorkers."
In Westwood, according to Carr, "It was pandemonium. People were calling, Nureyev, Betty [lauren] Bacall, asking for house seats but there were no house seats. We were saving the film for the Academy."
Only one VIP screening was arranged hosted by EMI Board Chairman Lord Bernard Delfont.
Carr's campaign seemed to have pinpoint timing and strategies of exposure. He was backed by the highest levels at Universal, who were counting on the Oscar to help them with the tough marketing job posed by "Deer Hunter."
"Deer Hunter" got the Oscars. The next award, if the plan stays on track, will be steadily building grosses. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption