Sunday, December 09, 2001

Serious Oscar campaigning heats up

By David Germain
The Associated Press

        It's coming up on the season for Oscar campaigning, the Hollywood equivalent of running for class president.

        Although nobody likes to talk about their chances until they have a gold statue in hand, actors, directors and others with awards-worthy achievements try generally to raise their public profiles.

        They make themselves more available for interviews, turn up at special screenings of their movies, and accept honors at film festivals or other industry events they might shy away from if not for that shot at an Oscar.

        “It's a good time to give somebody an award,” said Kim Masters, contributing editor on Hollywood matters for Esquire magazine. “They'll show up to collect the good-eyelash award, the well-groomed fingernail award or the be-kind-to-canaries award. People are definitely on their best behavior.”

        Studios blanket Hollywood trade papers with ads pitching films for awards consideration and send video copies to awards voters, even for films that have little chance of grabbing nominations.

        The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tightened rules on Oscar campaigns, trying to keep the focus as much as possible on the films themselves. After a studio sent out fancy boxed sets of videos a few years ago, the Academy began insisting that videos be packaged simply, with no extras that might unduly influence voters.

        Still, awards season has become an affair more drawn-out than the NBA playoffs. Each year brings new ceremonies and industry honors, making it difficult to rein in the studios' fierce jockeying to position films for Oscar gold.

        Awards feed awards, with films gaining momentum as they pick up honors. Major critics circles this month begin picking their award winners. The American Film Institute has added a new awards show, with nominations in mid-December, just before Golden Globe nods are announced Dec. 20. Guilds for actors, directors and other film trades honor top achievements in their fields.

        It's all a long buildup to the Oscar nominations Feb. 12 and the awards presentation March 24.

        Often reluctantly, stars agree to interviews to keep their names and films in the industry limelight. Actors never know when or if they'll have another performance that could bag them an Oscar.

        “You can't deny the emotion of wanting to win something,” said Will Smith, who takes his shot at serious acting respectability in Ali.

        “But you just try to avoid thinking about it. That's not why you set out to do a project. What I can say is, this is the work of my career. I've never done anything even remotely comparable.”

        Stars tend to clam up when bluntly asked about the Oscar outlook.

        “I really don't want to have a conversation about that, and I'll tell you why,” said two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, a possible contender again for The Shipping News. “Aside from the fact that it's tacky, I also think that when film companies abuse that word (Oscar), audiences resent it and critics resent it when they start seeing that word shoved down their throat. . . . I had that happen last year, and the film didn't merit it.”

        Mr. Spacey was referring to Pay It Forward, which had been on the early awards radar because of its cast, which also included Oscar winner Helen Hunt and past nominee Haley Joel Osment. The movie fell by the wayside once it screened for critics and awards voters.

        “I honestly bow out of that stuff. It just doesn't feel right,” said Nicole Kidman, who has two films — Moulin Rouge and The Others — with awards prospects. “Let the studios go and do it. And you just say, "I love my movies.' It's that simple.”

        Six years ago, Ms. Kidman had solid Oscar buzz for To Die For but missed out on a nomination.

        “I don't want to go through that again. I just don't want to talk about it, honestly. With To Die For, I was told, yes, you'll be nominated. Then I wasn't,” Ms. Kidman said. “You have to concentrate on the work ahead, and anything else that comes along is icing on the cake.”

        USA Films scheduled the Los Angeles premiere of Robert Altman's Gosford Park at the Academy theater this month. It's billed as a benefit for the group Women in Film, but the Academy trappings add a nice Oscar aura to the British whodunit, for which USA Films has best-picture hopes.

        “It's not as calculated as that, because this is what you do with movies. You do premieres in L.A., and it's a great venue we're doing ours in,” USA Films Chairman Scott Greenstein said. “Is there a residual benefit? Certainly, because people in L.A. who are academy members may be there.”

        The Academy Awards were started to promote the film industry, and they remain a key advertising tool for individual movies. Oscars and nominations attract audiences, potentially padding a film's box-office receipts by tens of millions of dollars.


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- Serious Oscar campaigning heats up