"Oscarpanic," they called it -- a disease that hits the movie industry every winter like a cold in a kindergarten.
But it's far worse this year. After the longest, most blatant, most costly promotional campaign in the 52-year history of the Oscars, the outcome is still nerve-wrackingly uncertain. Even insiders refuse to predict who -- or this year, what will be nominated on Tuesday. And the anxiety of thousands is focused on an unpretentious building in Beverly Hills where quiet Price-Waterhouse accountants are nodding and muttering over stacks of ballots.
By 10 days ago -- when the Oscar balloting closed -- the industry had spent more than $1.5 million (some say much more) just to hype their products for 3,762 Oscar voters -- more than $500 per voter.
There were twice as many ads in the trade papers this year, almost twice the number of free screenings and buffet dinners and more outright electioneering than in any previous Oscar contest. Scores of billboards boosted studio stars. A lavish print-ad campaign for Peter O'Toole's "The Stunt Man" was so ponderous that even the Academy complained. All to no avail: The promotion continued. And Twentieth Century-Fox even tried to get an unprecedented supporting-actor nomination for non-humans: Yoda and R2D2 of "The Empire Strikes Back."
From the start, it was obvious that the absence of enough first-rate pictures had left some Oscars for the taking. "It's bad because this is a wide-open year," said Bob Levinson, a former spokesman for the Academy. "So everybody is trying to throw their hat into the ring."
It can pay off: Oscars, or even nominations, mean millions when the films are rereleased. An estimated $20 million in additional revenues is riding on the nominations alone, and another $50 million on the Oscars themselves. And all of it decided in an election which is determined by the loyalties, prejudices and tastes of very few people.
The balloting process has little, if any, control. No attempt is made to see that the voters have even seen the films that are up this year, and nobody knows how many of the 3,762 Academy members even vote. (Veteran Hollywood columnists have often said that no more than 80 percent and as few as 60 percent actually turn in ballots.)
The Academy is organized into branches, and the only nomination for which all the members may vote is best picture. The other selections are made by each branch: The 1,073 actors choose the five acting nominees; 215 directors choose the five best-director nominees, and so forth. This means that as few as 10 voters may decide the fate of a nominee in the smaller academy branches.
Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership represents only a fraction of the 55,000 persons in the entire film industry, 10 votes is mighty thin ice on which to launch such an internationally important artistic prize.
Producer Allan Carr bragged several years aho that he insured a best-director nomination for Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter") by holding a two-person screening for Steven Spielberg and Vincent Minnelli, who represented the old and new factions in the Director's Guild.
Hollywood's collective nerves are frazzled from the dog-eat-dog Oscar campaign. The trade papers, Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which movie people read like tablets of stone, were so laden with ads that postmen couldn't fit them in the mail box.
For each of six weeks, a quarter of a million dollars worth of glossy ads in the trades assaulted the Academy's voters, promoting nominations for actors as credible as Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" and as improbable as Chevy Chase in "Seems Like Old Times." The Sunset Strip was set ablaze with two-story-high neon caricatures of Neil Diamond ("The Jazz Singer"), Bette Midler ("Divine Madness") and Dolly Parton ("Nine to Five").
As usual, the ad campaigns often descended into absurdity and bad taste. Immediately after doctors announced that Richard Pryor had recovered from his burn injuries, full-page ads began asking voters to consider him for best actor in "Stir Crazy." "This was undoubtedly inspired by Pryor's brush with death and his recovery as recorded daily in the trade papers," said a spokesman for the Academy. "And it could, unfortunately, work."
Some campaigns were merely funny, such as Twentieth Century-Fox's flashy campaign for Yoda, and Muppet of "The Empire Strikes Back," and for Darth Vader in the same picture. Should a Muppet, a puppet or a robot actually be nominated, Academy officers would have to run to their rule books. Darth Vader, which uses the voice of James Jones and the body of British actor David Prowse, would be ruled out before even a single vote was counted since the Oscar rules forbid entries whose voice is supplied by other actors. However, Frank Oz, who is both the voice and the muppeteer of Yoda, is eligible and might, given the right circumstances, be nominated.
MGM placed a host of ads for its expensive turkey, "The Formula," seeking acting nominations for George C. Scott and Marlon Brando -- despite the fact that neither actor wanted to be nominated. But Brando and Scott have no say in the matter. "We had to consider the good of the picture and the performances," said MGM's Al Newman, director of publicity. "We were aware that we were dealing with actors who had both refused Oscars," but the picture came first.
Under Academy rules, an actor may not turn down a nomination -- as Scott has tried to do twice. Scott said in an interview that the "meat parade" of the Oscars is still "not something I can live with. But it's not something that I will talk about. I learned my lesson when I refused the Oscar for 'Patton.' It created nothing but trouble for me. So, when I was nominated again for 'Hospital,' I said nothing about it. But I doubt that I will ever be nominated again." Brando will not comment on the MGM ads, even though he is likely to be nominated for best supporting actor.
Hundreds of actors, directors, writers and producers can't resist the Lorelei call of Oscar hype. "The studio always takes the rap," says Arthur Wilde, publicity chief at Twentieth Century-Fox. "But we are usually acting on tremendous, almost hysterical pressure that is put on us by the actors, directors and writers themselves. You would be amazed at the incredible things we are asked to do."
Art Sarno, who has handled the publicity for the Academy Awards during the last decade, agrees with Wilde that many of the ads and the volume of advertising can be blamed directly on the actors and other artists. "A lot of the studios do it for self-protection," said Sarno. "For instance, say a studio has a long-term deal with [a superstar]. And he brings in $40 or $50 million a year to the studio. Now he's got a picture that doesn't have an Oscar chance. The studio knows he might get ticked off if they don't run the ads. What do they do? They run them, of course. It only costs the studio 50 or 60 thousand dollars. It's a good investment." i
Costly as the Oscar hype may be, the studios consider it a bargain compared to the potential return -- a bonanza at the box office. "What's a $500,000 studio campaign if it gets them an additional $40 million at the box office?" says Sarno.
How much is the Oscar worth? Plenty. Nationally, this year's crop will probably translate into at least $115 million in additional revenues. Locally -- at suburban Washington-area theaters -- a best picture can double or even triple the nightly take.
"We've been playing 'Ordinary People' at the Janus Theater for some time now," says Ron Goldman of KB Theaters. "The take has never gone lower than $4,400 weekly. If 'Ordinary People' comes in with nominations for best director, best picture, best actress and best supporting actor, our weekly grosses will go as high as $14,000." At one theater.
"It makes a tremendous difference," says Goldman, who also believes that the very likely Oscar nominations for "Raging Bull" will make that Robert De Niro film into an instant hit.
Ted Pedas of Washington's Circle Theaters agrees. "But I think the awards that really make the difference to people in the suburbs are best picture, best actor and best director. I remember that 'Julia' won some important awards, but they were not the right ones -- so the Oscars didn't help 'Julia' very much."
Pedas believes that it's not the publicity that does it, but the stamp of approval that the Oscar puts on a picture. "If it wins, ticket-buyers feel assured that they are going to see a good film for their money."
In 1980, Dustin Hoffman took home the prize as best actor for "Kramer vs. Kramer." That film was named best picture and copped a passel of other awards. Conservative industry estimates show that those awards should be worth a cool $25 million to the film by the time the final returns are in.
"There's no money in getting an Oscar per se," says Ernest Borgnine, Oscar winner for "Marty," "but in time you may be offered a million dollars in parts." One prime example of Oscar upsmanship is Gene Hackman, who took an Oscar for "The French Connection." His fee per picture jumped from $120,000 to $1.5 million after he won the best-actor award.
The Academy, too, has benefitted financially from the awards -- especially since TV entered the picture in 1950, turning the Oscars into Hollywood's biggest publicity stunt.
In 1952, NBC paid the Academy $100,000 to broadcast the ceremony. Since then, the network and advertising money rolled in until it reached the millions, with the Oscars broadcast live to 16 countries worldwide, and dozens of others later by satellite. According to the Academy, only the Super Bowl has a larger domestic audience, and ABC, the Academy's contractee, has begun charging advertisers $200,000 a minute. Neither ABC nor the Academy will openly discuss the contract terms, but in 1980 the network paid more than $2 million for the rights to air the ceremony. It costs the Academy more than $1.6 million to produce the show, including payments to the cast (Johnny Carson alone takes home $15,000 for one night's work). So $400,000 is left to pay for the massive Academy library, film restoration projects and festivals.
As the awards have become more lucrative for both the Academy and the movies, executives have devised ever more inventive strategies to exploit the post-Oscar box office.
It all started with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the best picture of 1975. Three weeks before the Oscars, United Artists, which distributed the film, took a straw poll in Hollywood and deduced that "Cuckoo's Nest" would be an easy winner. UA released the film in a big blast toward the end fo 1975 -- taking in major holiday ticket sales and then pulling the movie back in mid-winter.
Then the movie won all five of the major Academy Awards -- the first film to do so since "It Happened One Night" in 1934. The morning after the Oscars, United Artists booked the film into 1,000 theaters in America, Canada and Great Britain. Film writer Gregg Kilday, formerly of The Los Angeles Times and later with the Herald-Examiner, wrote that the five Oscars probably added an additional $43 million to the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" take.
Universal announced that the best-picture award added $30 million in profits for their winner, "The Sting." And United Artists and MGM got their heads together before the 1976 ceremony and paired up two Oscar-caliber movies -- "Network" and "Rocky." The duo divided most of the big Oscars in 1976, and the films opened as a double bill in 900 theaters, pulling in a total of $20 million in eight weeks.
Naturally, this kind of return puts great pressure on the studios to get the films nominated and bag at least one Oscar. "Some pictures have to get an Oscar to make it in the marketplace," says a publicist for Paramount. "That's a dangerous situation. When a film has to win in order to make back its cost, some of us will have to do everything short of killing to get them. It'll be a whole new ballgame in the '80s."