Oscar Politics: Campaigns–Miramax Versus DreamWorks

Miramax, which boasts one of the industry’s largest and most savvy publicity departments, enlists outside consultants to handle various aspects of Oscar campaigns, screenings, and gossipcolumn items. Miramax learned how to put on an effective campaign when they brought a tough, decidedly not Oscar material film such as The Crying Game into Oscar prominence.

In 1993, Miramax engineered an amazingly overblown ad campaign for The Piano in the trades, mailing out elegant booklets printed on expensive parchment. One of the unusual aspects of The Piano’s campaign was its emphasis on the achievements of the women involved in the production.

The picture garnered nominations for women in seven categories, including Director and screenplay to Jane Campion, who won the latter. Harvey Weinstein claimed that the costs of the campaign were $250,000 for ads; his competitors tripled his figure. One sarcastic commentator said that it cost almost as much to promote the movie as to make it. Even so, by today’s standards, these figures are minuscule.

While the race to win Oscars goes on for months, the five-week window between the nominations and the ballot deadline is crunch time for those who manage Oscar campaigns. The goal is to campaign aggressively without appearing desperate. According to Amy Wallace of the Los Angeles Times, the studios purchased airtime for advertising their nominees in New York and Los Angeles, where most of the Academy voters live. A recap of Annette Bening’s vacuuming scene from American Beauty ran during NBC’s Friends, and nominated actor Michael Caine and The Cider House Rules director, Lasse Hallstrom, took time during a NYPD Blue episode to promote their film as an American classic.

The campaigns evoke more public appearances from those who are usually low-key performers. Kevin Spacey attended a number of high-profile evenings for American Beauty, and co’star Bening, days away from delivering her fourth baby, made an appearance with Jay Leno. Several other nominees appeared on award shows like the Golden Globes, banking on recognition from the television audience for a boost.

While the studios do not reveal the costs of these campaigns, a four-week analysis by the Los Angeles Times’s Wallace, using the trade papers showed how aggressive these campaigns are. The Best Picture front-runners were DreamWorks’ American Beauty and Miramax’s The Cider House Rules, and those projections were consistent with the ads tally from Variety since the nominations were announced.

Of the four studios with Best Picture contenders, Disney spent the least on advertising, about $141,000 on The Sixth Sense, and $198,000 on The Insider. Warner spent about $313,000 to promote The Green Mile, while Miramax paid about $350,000 for Cider House. DreamWorks spent by far the most on postnominations ads, more than $774,000 on Variety’s most premium advertising (six fillpage front cover ads at $29,100 a piece) for American Beauty.

By contrast, Warner bought three full-page covers, and Disney bought two. Some of DreamWorks’ spending was necessitated by congratulatory ad-buying that’s considered de rigueur after wins. American Beauty had formerly the Directors, Writers and Actors Screen Guild prizes.

There is no ceiling on how much money the studios will spend to promote their nominees. In 2000, when a postal service mishap caused the Academy to postpone the ballot deadline by two days (March 23, rather than the 21), the studios rallied to book ad space for the extra two days. More extensive advertising was placed for films that were still in wide release, such as American Beauty and Cider House.

For those films, Oscar wins means at least 15 percent increase at the box office. Even before the Oscar show, heavy advertising motivates moviegoers to see the nominees; by contrast, films that are gone, or are in limited release, tend to spend less.

“American Beauty”‘s Best Picture represented, as Dana Harris wrote in Variety, a coming-of-age for DreamWorks, an upstart studio that began operation in 1994. The film’s five Oscars, including Best Director and Actor, were a sweet victory after the disappointment the company had faced the year prior, when Saving Private Ryan earned Best Director for Spielberg but lost Best Picture to Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love.

DreamWorks’ shrewd marketing, orchestrated by the gifted Terry Press, helped achieve the landslide victory. Some saw the 2000 battle between Miramax and DreamWorks as a repeat of the last year’s skirmish. In March, DreamWorks bought 38 percent more Variety pages for American Beauty than Miramax did for Cider House. Even so, the feeling was that Miramax got what they wanted out of the nominations for Cider House, doubling the movie’s grosses to over $50 million.

Press’s marketing campaign for American Beauty began in September after the buzz began at the Toronto Film Festival, where the movie world-premiered. Despite word that the movie was too dark, that it engaged too many controversial issues–drugs, murder, adultery–for the Academy’s older voters, the campaign stressed that the film was fresh and ultimately positive and humane.

This was followed by a Christmas card from American Beauty’s Burnham family, inviting guests to an open house. At a La Cienega restaurant, screenwriter Ball, director Mendes, and actors Spacey and Bening mingled with guests as soundtrack artist Elliot Smith performed. The strategy worked–American Beauty emerged triumphant at Oscar time.