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Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 10:42 GMT
Studios rapped for Oscar campaigns
By New York entertainment correspondent Tom Brook
As Hollywood prepares for its biggest night of the year Academy members are recovering from an unusually intense and unconventional campaign by the big studios to win their votes.
Two studios, DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Classics, have been penalised for overzealous promotional activities.
DreamWorks has been forced to surrender four tickets to the Oscars ceremony because it ignored Academy guidelines by improperly using an Oscar statuette in its advertising.
Academy regulations specify that Oscar voters "may not be sent both a DVD and a videotape of the same motion picture".
These violations may appear to be minor transgressions but they reflect the Academy's rigorous patrolling of studio efforts to influence the 5,607 voting members of the Academy.
The studios are motivated by their desire for the prestige of an Oscar victory, but they also want the revenues a trophy can bring.
Given that a film that wins the coveted best picture Oscar can expect a box office boost of almost $30m means the studios are willing to invest huge sums, as much as $1m, in publicity campaigns.
Even this year, when the US theatrical life of two best picture nominees, Gladiator and Erin Brockovich, has been exhausted, an Oscar triumph can still generate additional revenues from home video, overseas box office and other markets.
Gladiator has the most nominations and is the favourite, but the consensus is that both Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could walk away with the best picture prize.
The Academy's rules governing promotional activities during the Oscar campaign are quite restrictive.
They state that the primary goal is to limit studio activities "to those things that will actually assist members in their efforts to assess the artistic and technical merits of a film".
The Academy states that the aim is to maintain a level playing field for nominated films.
This year has seen the studios deploying a host of unorthodox tactics to publicize their pictures.
One example has been relentless TV advertising for the films Traffic and Chocolat, in which clips of the pictures are shown interspersed with sycophantic comments from members of the cast.
With Chocolat, Johnny Depp can be seen singing the praises of Oscar nominee Dame Judi Dench.
Another strategy, invoked by Miramax, the masters of Oscar campaigning, is to promote nominees in less publicized categories.
I am willing to bet that if Ennio Morricone wins the Oscar for best original score for Malena, it will be because he is the beneficiary of Miramax's intense radio advertising campaign.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles I heard a commercial highlighting his score repeatedly on my car radio.
This year, with a possible actors' and writers' strike looming, many Academy members have been unusually busy working on location trying to complete films before any industry shutdown.
So Sony Pictures has taken the unusual step of holding screenings of Crouching Tiger at 20 different film locations around the country, inviting the cast and crew to come and watch.
This year some big name movie stars have also participated in high profile Oscar campaigns.
Celebrity hosted screenings have suddenly become all the rage, although critics say they come perilously close to infringing Academy rules.
DreamWorks arranged for Russell Crowe, and other stars from the film, to make a personal appearance at a screening of Gladiator in Los Angeles.
Another film company had Jack Nicholson introduce Before Night Falls, the film that stars best actor nominee Javier Bardem.
When you ask Academy members if they're influenced by these studio tactics most claim they are not.
"I am certainly very serious about the responsibility of it, which I think most of the people in the Academy are," he says.
His Los Angeles home has a walk-in cupboard filled with videocassettes of nominated films and copies of screenplays adorn his coffee table.
Roberts says he is grateful for these materials sent by the studios.
"if you have some questions in your mind it gives you a chance to look to a script or replay a tape. You can really look at the thing carefully and thoroughly."
Although there is no scientific proof, the evidence suggests that Oscar campaigns can make a difference.
Many think that it was Miramax's multi-million dollar publicity effort that enabled Shakespeare in Love, and not Saving Private Ryan, to win the best picture prize in 1999 despite equally extravagant efforts by DreamWorks to promote Spielberg's World War II epic.
This year the impact of Oscar campaigning in such a close race may bring results.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could well win the best foreign language film and best director Oscar.
But if it also manages to walk off with the top best picture prize, depriving Gladiator of its expected glory, it is probably fair to say that victory will have been achieved partly by Sony Pictures' skilful promotional campaign.
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