Hollywood Breaks Bank for Oscar Race

As the race for Academy Award nominations enters its final 10 days, Hollywood studios are in the middle of the biggest Oscar spending spree in history, leading many Hollywood insiders to question whether Washington is the only town in need of campaign finance reform.

"Definitely, the connection between spending and nominations is pretty high," said Tony Angellotti, a campaign strategist for the films "A Beautiful Mind" and "Monsters Inc." "The same as in politics."

Spurred by a wide-open competition for some of the top nominations, the most aggressive studios have mounted campaigns that by some estimates have already cost more than $10 million, easily double what a successful effort totaled only two years ago. A campaign of that magnitude would involve spending more than $1,500 per Oscar voter in the effort to win nominations.

After the announcement of Academy Award nominations on Feb. 12, the expenditures will only balloon in the battle for the awards, which are to be given on March 24.

It's no surprise that the major studios spend exorbitant amounts on Academy Award campaigns. But this year, driven by the lack of clear front-runners, studios with deep pockets are digging deeper than ever to find flashy ways to distinguish themselves from the herd.

Oscar-related advertising is up by about 20 percent compared with last year, in the Hollywood trade papers and in the major newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, where most of the 6,000 or so academy voters live.

The money is being spent in unusual ways, with more television spots and double-page ads in newspapers, as well as with novelties like a 24-page insert in Daily Variety touting Miramax's "In the Bedroom." (Miramax, a celebrated big spender, is thought to be spending far more than the $1.5 million it paid for the film.) There is a series of three pop- up ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter for DreamWorks' computer-animated movie "Shrek."

Executives at both studios and officials at the trade newspapers declined to say how much those ads cost. But similar pop-up ads, like a campaign for Absolut vodka, ran about a dollar for each individual ad in production costs alone. The publications' charges for space would have to be added to that.

Since it is widely held that winning an Oscar is of significant financial benefit only in the best picture category, where it has been known to increase box-office sales by $30 million or more, there is clearly much more than money driving the spending, whether it is bragging rights or simply the desire to attract the best filmmakers and actors by showing a willingness to spend extravagantly on their behalf.

All this, of course, is just fine with those selling the ads, with the more prosperous studios and with the motion picture academy, which knows that competition creates excitement, which attracts more viewers to its annual telecast. The only dissenters are those representing films from studios without multimillion-dollar Oscar campaign budgets, who fear that even more than usual, their worthy films will be lost in the crowd.

"Running a campaign against some of these guys is very, very difficult," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Film, which is hoping for nominations for "Monster's Ball," a highly regarded independent drama. "Miramax spends a fortune. And the people over at DreamWorks run a campaign like they've got a candidate in the New Hampshire primary."

Also evident this year are a larger than usual number of studio-produced half-hour television shows promoting specific films; Miramax alone has done them for six of its movies. Studios pay to place them during nonpeak hours on some local stations and cable channels like MSNBC and E! The costs for the time are quite low compared with other forms of advertising, about $5,000 to $6,000 per half-hour, but the studios must also bear the expense of producing the programs.

Although awards ceremonies and critics' prizes have revealed a handful of potential Academy Award front-runners Ron Howard's "Beautiful Mind," Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" and Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" for best picture, and Sissy Spacek for best actress in "In the Bedroom" there are many films and performances competing for the remaining open slots.

Early awards have sometimes sown confusion. Robert Altman won the Golden Globe for best director for "Gosford Park," but was not among the five nominees for the same annual award from the Directors Guild of America. Nicole Kidman, who was up for two Golden Globes and won one for "Moulin Rouge!," was likewise overlooked among the nominees for the Screen Actors Guild awards.

"Up to the last minute this year, nothing is certain," said David Brooks, co-chairman of marketing for Miramax.

Daily Variety says its ad lineage in January was up about 20 percent over a year ago; The Hollywood Reporter says its is up by about the same. While no figures are available yet on the volume of television movie advertising in January, expectations are that spending will be up significantly over last year.

More than ever before, Oscar advertising has spread beyond the trade press to the mass-circulation papers as the studios jockey to reach all potential voters.

"The real difference has been the explosion of newspaper advertising," said Terry Press, the marketing chief at DreamWorks. For weeks, one of Hollywood's hottest subjects of comment and amazement has been the number and persistence of full-page advertisements taken out by studios in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, the leading papers in the two cities with the biggest concentrations of Oscar voters.

Catherine Mathis, a corporate spokeswoman for The New York Times, said revenues for entertainment advertising so far this year were up about 20 percent over the same period last year, largely because of the contentious awards race and the addition this year of a new Oscar category, best animated film, which has blossomed into a battle royal between "Shrek" and Disney's "Monsters Inc."

A spokeswoman for The Los Angeles Times would not give an exact percentage increase, but said it was "in the same ballpark."

Several studio executives and Oscar strategists estimated that some of this year's campaigns cost $10 million to $15 million, just to get the nomination.

Not everyone agrees that the Oscar spending on individual films has been that high this year. "We never comment about how much we spend on Oscar campaigns," Mr. Brooks of Miramax said. "But those numbers do seem high."

When executives at Lions Gate were deciding how to release "Monster's Ball," an offbeat film about the romance between a white prison guard and the black wife of one of the men he executed, they decided to open in a few theaters in late December, hoping to win some rave reviews and perhaps a few critics' awards and then build slowly toward the Oscar nominations.

Sure enough, the $3.5 million film got a lot of rave reviews, and Halle Berry won some important awards and nominations for her lead performance. The critic Roger Ebert also declared "Monster's Ball" the best movie of the year.

Now, days before Academy Award nominations are to be announced, Lions Gate is feeling overwhelmed, outspent 10 to 1 or more by bigger studios. "This is very expensive to do," said Jon Feltheimer, the studio's chief executive. "We remain hopeful. But to be competitive, we'd need to spend $10 million, and that's just to be competitive."

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a 21-page list of guidelines for Academy Award campaigns that is intended, it says, "to allow all eligible films to be considered on as level a playing field as possible." The academy has two remedies for violations. It can withhold some tickets to the Oscar ceremonies for an offending studio or it can disqualify the film from competition, something it has never done.

Studios are forbidden to give parties to promote films, although supporters often have gala receptions in honor of some films or private parties at their homes.

The guidelines also exclude any sort of reception or appearance by a film's stars at official screenings. But Fox telegraphed the seriousness of its drive on behalf of "Moulin Rouge!" last autumn by putting on a star-studded screening that it no doubt hoped would attract and impress potential Oscar voters.

The academy guidelines even forbid studios to call voters on behalf of their films, although several voters said the telephone campaign rule is routinely flouted.

In fact, Mr. Feltheimer of Lions Gate said that a phone campaign was central to his studio's drive for "Monsters Ball." "We've been sitting here calling people we know at the academy," he said. "Well, not everybody. Just everybody we've ever met at least once."