"For Your Consideration" is the polite refrain, trilling through yards of glossy stock in the Hollywood trade papers.
"For your vote" is the unspoken appeal. And "for the box office" is the bottom line.
Never have so few done so much for so few as during the six-week pre-Oscar ad blitz. By the time the Academy Award nominations are announced today, Hollywood will be only halfway through its annual promotional equivalent of carpet bombing, dumping some $2 million worth of ads into the pages of Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Starting at the first of the year, the eight major studios and a scattering of independents aim their seven-figure attention at one of the nation's narrowest ad markets: the 3,851 members of the Motion Picture Academy who are eligible to nominate films for the Oscars. It's hard to miss: Of the 84 pages in the Jan. 15 issue of Daily Variety, 36 were giant "for your consideration" display ads, many in three or four colors. And that's not counting the five-page consecutive spread hawking the putative eminence of Peter Bogdanovich's "They All Laughed," the various half-page plugs for "Chariots of Fire," and various quarter-page spots like the one offering Tom Cruise for best supporting actor in "Taps."
And no wonder: Winning an Oscar can mean $1 million in ticket sales when the film is re-released (some say as much as $4 million or $5 million). Even a nomination, or a cluster of critical honors, can pay off: "Atlantic City," with only 125 prints in circulation, was dying at the box office when an infusion of accolades -- including the Golden Globe and New York critics' awards --revived its chances. And Paramount's promo reminders are working. "You tend to forget," says one Academy member who missed the Louis Malle film during its brief semi-retirement, but is headed for a screening.
Moreover, since 1981 did not produce a single blockbuster film likely to sweep the Oscars, the competition, and the ad campaigns, are intense. All in brazen contravention of the Academy's own rules. "It's a heavy year again," says Academy spokesman Don Morgan, who patiently reiterates the written warning to members that "you will be importuned by advertisements, promotional gifts and other lobbying tactics in an attempt to solicit your vote."
"Each year these crude and excessive solicitations embarrass the Academy, embarrass you and demean the significance of the Academy Award of Merit," the regulations state. "We call upon each Academy member to disregard these attempts to influence your vote and we urge you to register your displeasure" with the studios.
The rule has been in effect since the early '70s, but to no avail. In the few weeks prior to Oscar nominations, advertising increases from 20 to 30 percent in the trades, says Steven Sims, advertising and marketing director of The Hollywood Reporter: "It's comparable to the Christmas buying season for retailers." He estimates that each major studio spends, on the average, between $100,000 and $150,000 between Jan. 1 and Oscar night.
Some pay much more. This year, for example, Paramount is approaching half a million dollars to support its heavy roster of contenders. A couple have a likely shot at nominations in only one or two of the Academy's 22 categories, such as "Mommie Dearest" (best actress, best costumes) and "Dragonslayer" (special effects). But several -- including "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Ragtime," "Reds," "Atlantic City" and "Gallipoli" -- are plausible candidates in as many as 10 categories. Since only a fraction of the Academy members is entitled to nominate for each award (directors for best director, and so forth), reaching that specific subgroup requires three or four ads in each paper for each category: as many as 60 different ads for a major film. At an average cost, Sims says, of $1,000 or more per page, depending on the amount of color used, that's more than $60,000 for one movie.
Even the lesser honors can be worth a pitch. Witness Universal's full page pleading consideration for "Zoot Suit's" adaptation score and original song, "Handball," or Magnum Pictures' full-color page plugging the cinematography in "Lion of the Desert."
And that's not counting alternative reminders: mass mailings to inform Academy members of screenings, or handouts of sound-track records. Polygram has saturated the membership with albums from "Endless Love," which is hopeful in the "Best Song" category.
A few of the ads are run "for political reasons," says one studio executive. "It's a sort of a payoff -- the egos out here are monstrous." Extraneous criteria may be suspected when a studio pushes hard for a film with only a slim chance of success (like Columbia's campaign for "Only When I Laugh" and actresses Marsha Mason and Kristy McNichol) or a film that sagged at the box office (like MGM's lavish displays for "All the Marbles"). Gordon Weaver, Paramount's senior vice president for worldwide marketing, says, "If you start using this process to make business deals or to keep stars happy, it demeans the whole process. And those things are so obvious."
Some ads are placed in a spirit of dubious optimism, like those bought by Warner Bros. and The Ladd Co. for "Chariots of Fire," or Paramount's support for "Gallipoli." They're a risky investment, says a studio executive, since Academy members "tend to vote American."
The hoopla glut is as old as the Oscars, and the resulting ad revenue "really started the trades," says Sims, back in the '20s. But "the first time I was aware that there was a problem," says one Academy official, was in 1960 when United Artists' alarmingly sumptuous campaign for "The Alamo," produced by John Wayne, even prompted newspaper editorials about promotional overkill. In vain, as it happened: UA's "The Apartment" won best picture.
Although the Academy runs free screenings of new releases every Sunday in the summer and fall, Mike Malak, director of marketing at Daily Variety, argues that the ad blitz is necessary to make sure Academy members see the films: "These are very, very busy people -- you have to remind them."
Paramount's Weaver agrees. "I don't think you actually get anyone's vote by running an ad -- it's really done to recognize excellence." But, he says, "like any artistic endeavor, this is not a charity operation."