Stu­dios spare no ex­pense for Os­car cam­paigns

The Washington Post Sunday - - 85TH ACADEMY AWARDS - by John Horn and Glenn Whipp

For­get about the price of gaso­line. The real sky­rock­et­ing ex­pense this year is the Os­car race. With two deep-pock­eted stu­dios locked into one of the clos­est best pic­ture du­els in re­cent me­mory and Academy Award vot­ing ex­tended by two weeks, the bat­tle be­tween “Argo” and “Lin­coln” has sparked what sev­eral Hol­ly­wood ex­ec­u­tives say is the costli­est cam­paign on record.

“It’s like an arms race this year,” said Jim Burke, a pro­ducer on one of last year’s best pic­ture nom­i­nees, “The Descen­dants.”

The best pic­ture con­test re­cently has been dom­i­nated by in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tions such as “The Hurt Locker” and “The Artist” that couldn’t eas­ily throw around money as if it were con­fetti. But in this year’s Os­car race, Warner Bros.’ “Argo” and Walt Dis­ney Co.’s “Lin­coln” are each spend­ing an es­ti­mated $10 mil­lion — and po­ten­tially much more — tout­ing their film’s chances, up to dou­ble what a costly cam­paign has to­taled in years past.

Other stu­dios are only slightly less prof­li­gate: Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios (“Les Misérables”), 20th Cen­tury Fox (“Life of Pi”) and Sony Pic­tures (“Zero Dark Thirty”) all have spent lav­ishly on their “For Your Con­sid­er­a­tion” pro­mo­tions.

The money can be well spent: A best pic­ture win can bring in mil­lions more at the box of­fice and help sell a ton more DVDs. What’s more, Os­car hard­ware can help woo im­age-con­scious film­mak­ers into a stu­dio’s fold. Dis­ney, the dis­trib­u­tor of “Lin­coln,” has never won a best pic­ture stat­uette, and Warner Bros. has a sub­stan­tial in­ter­est in mak­ing “Argo” di­rec­tor Ben Af­fleck and pro­ducer Ge­orge Clooney feel a lot of love.

Although the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences has cur­tailed the num­ber of post­nom­i­na­tion screen­ings, par­ties and pro­mo­tional e-mail blasts, it has no power over paid ad­ver­tis­ing and re­lated cam­paign ex­penses.

The spend­ing bl­iz­zard in­cludes cov­ers in Hol­ly­wood’s trade news­pa­pers (a sin­gle-page Va­ri­ety cover can cost as much as $80,000), 30-minute tele­vi­sion spots high­light­ing a film’s bona fides (lo­cal broad­cast time for re­cent half-hour “Lin­coln,” “Argo” and “Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook” ads can cost more than $100,000) and first-class air travel, lim­ou­sines and ho­tels for film­mak­ers skip­ping around the globe to woo awards vot­ers and col­lect lesser tro­phies (“Lin­coln” star Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t fly coach and stay at the lo­cal EconoLodge).

Out­door “wallscape” ad­ver­tis­ing on build­ings in prime real-es­tate lo­cales can run more than $200,000, in­clud­ing pro­duc­tion and in­stal­la­tion costs. And then there are the high-end par­ties and re­cep­tions for the nom­i­nees, which, if held at tony es­tab­lish­ments like the Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel, can set stu­dios back $100,000 per event.

Awards-sea­son book­keep­ing, like the rest of Hol­ly­wood ac­count­ing, is an amor­phous art form, which makes pre­cise ex­penses hard to pin­point. A blurry line sep­a­rates the spend­ing on a movie’s the­atri­cal and DVD re­leases with its Os­carsea­son ef­forts.

Ini­tial awards bud­gets, said veteran Academy Awards con­sul­tant Tony An­gelotti, are typ­i­cally amended numer­ous times with lit­tle li­a­bil­ity over fi­nal costs. “If you spend $10 mil­lion and don’t win any Os­cars, no one really wants to see that fi­nal fig­ure,” An­gelotti said.

“I know it’s sub­stan­tial,” Elizabeth Gabler, whose Fox 2000 Pic­tures made “Life of Pi,” said of the awards pro­mo­tions spend­ing for di­rec­tor Ang Lee’s film. “I know it’s as much as we’ve ever spent. We felt it was our re­spon­si­bil­ity to sup­port the film in this way.”

The ex­pen­di­tures be­gin months be­fore the vot­ing dead­line set by the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences. Stu­dios start tar­get­ing var­i­ous pre­cur­sor awards groups such as crit­ics or­ga­ni­za­tions and show busi­ness guilds in the fall, of­ten woo­ing votes with an ar­ray of gifts.

This year, mem­bers of the Broad­cast Film Crit­ics As­so­ci­a­tion re­ceived four dif­fer­ent lav­ish “Lin­coln” books (in­clud­ing one de­voted to Civil War recipes) as well as a DVD that ar­rived in an in­laid, num­bered box. Af­ter the 250-plus mem­ber group gave Spiel­berg’s film a record 13 nominations, each voter re­ceived a per­son­ally signed thank-you note from the di­rec­tor on his let­ter­head sta­tionery. Uni­ver­sal sent ev­ery BFCA voter an iPod Shuf­fle (re­tail price: $49) pre-loaded with the songs from “Les Misérables.”

“I re­mem­ber think­ing, in terms of gifts, this is a bit much,” says Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood film critic Scott Mantz, a BFCA mem­ber. “In the 22 years I’ve been cov­er­ing awards sea­sons, I’ve never seen any­thing quite like it. When you open up the mail and find a ‘Les Miz’ iPod, you know we’re not in a re­ces­sion any­more.”

Uni­ver­sal said that its “Les Misérables” cam­paign, which is all but cer­tain to bring a sup­port­ing ac­tress Os­car to cos­tar Anne Hath­away, cost less than $10 mil­lion.

Har­vey We­in­stein, whose films “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech” won the past two best pic­ture tro­phies, said the run­away ex­pen­di­tures don’t guar­an­tee Os­car gold — and as the per­son who mas­tered the mod­ern, take-no-pris­on­ers awards cam­paign, he should know.

“I don’t be­lieve spend­ing the money nec­es­sar­ily works, as we’ve proven in the past,” said We­in­stein, who thinks “Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook” has a chance to score an up­set best pic­ture win. “And any money you spend has to make peo­ple go see the movie.”

The open-wal­let cam­paign­ing has left sev­eral best pic­ture nom­i­nees with fewer re­sources scram­bling to stay in the con­ver­sa­tion.

“We’ll see on Feb. 24 how in­flu­en­tial those big spends are,” said Michael Barker, whose Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics is re­leas­ing “Amour,” which is short­listed for both the best pic­ture and for­eign lan­guage races. “I’m sit­ting here with five nominations for ‘Amour,’ and I think that it re­ceived all those nominations is proof that academy mem­bers aren’t al­ways paying at­ten­tion to the big cam­paigns.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

DEEP POCK­ETS: To pro­mote “Les Misérables,” Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios gave awards vot­ers iPod Shuf­fles loaded with songs from the film.

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