The Biz: Late-year flicks rev Oscar-ad engines

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For the first time in years, the list of potential Oscar nominees are likely to come from a flurry of late-season movies, fueling a rush of increased marketing dollars.

"It's rare that three or four movies survive the Christmas season," says Russell Schwartz, president-domestic theatrical marketing for AOL Time Warner's New Line Cinema. "It's a healthy season to some extent. There is no clear front-runner so far."

Contenders include "Chicago" from Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Films; "The Hours" from Viacom's Paramount Pictures; "Lord of the Rings: Two Towers" from New Line Cinema; "The Pianist" from Vivendi Universal's Focus Features; "About Schmidt" from New Line Cinema; "Gangs of New York" from Miramax Films; and "Adaptation" from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Estimates on marketing dollars aimed at snagging an Oscar vary wildly-from $1 million to $15 million per movie. Major studios use local media-TV, print, radio and business publications-in New York and Los Angeles, where most of the 6,400 Academy members live. This year, it's even more difficult to estimate Oscar marketing dollars because many of the movies are still in release and are simultaneously advertising to consumers.

New York Times Co. reported entertainment-ad revenue at the flagship New York Times rose 21% in the fourth quarter of 2002 over 2001, thanks in part to the Oscar race. Janet Robinson, Times Co. senior VP-newspaper operations, expects the company to have a strong first quarter in entertainment advertising. The 75th Annual Academy Awards will be handed out March 23. With no early favorites, competition is hot, Robinson says. This translates into increased advertising at the Times and similar publications.

Craig Hitchcock, publishing director of Daily Variety, said its print advertising was pacing 10% higher than a year ago, and studio executives report Variety has upped its rates.

The Oscar race is a complicated marketing and public-relations journey that stretches through the entire awards season-including the Golden Globes and others. Oscar marketing also takes into account an unusual number of screenings at the studios. Some are official Academy screenings in which studios are not allowed to over-hype a movie to Academy members. That means no after parties and no pre-screening introductions or discussions by the actors and directors. But many studios are now staging screenings that are not billed as official Academy events, but most of the guest list consists of Academy members, and the rules banning discussions and parties are ignored.

"Every aspect of the campaign is competitive," says Peter Graves, president of CineMarket, a Los Angeles movie-marketing consultancy. "The positioning of ads in the trades, the parties, the special screenings, and the winning of the critics awards."

word of mouth

For Miramax's "Chicago," favorable reviews and awards already give it a leg up. "It is one of the most extraordinary stories-because we haven't really spent a lot of money at all," says Caryn Picker, VP-broadcast marketing, Miramax. "Though we have done a little campaigning. It's a word-of-mouth film-which is a whole different campaign."

Much of the Oscar marketing effort is focused on the nominations, announced Feb. 11. After that, efforts intensify for the two-and-a-half week period in which Academy members get to work. Movie studios can increase their box-office take during this period from 20% to 50%, according to executives. "The public feels they have to see all five nominated films," Schwartz says.

With the Oscar ceremony moved up to February next year, the competition has already started, according to other marketing executives. Films such as "Seabiscuit" from Universal Pictures, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" from New Line Cinema and "Cold Mountain" from Miramax are already being pushed in the press as early contenders.

contributing: mercedes cardona

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