The purchasing power of an Oscar vote -- Hollywood studios merge efforts with the media to promote their Oscar favorites

There ought to be an Oscar awarded for Best Promotional Hype Masquerading as a Movie Review. This year’s prize, hands down, goes to WWOR-TV’s Pat Collins for her classic line, ”Drive Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman straight to the Oscar ceremonies.” Featured prominently in both print and TV ads for Driving Miss Daisy, the critical imperative marked Collins as something of a backseat driver herself, bossily telling both her viewers and the academy exactly where to go.

But then Collins’ attempt to jump on the Oscar bandwagon is hardly an isolated lapse of decorum. Candice Russell of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel enthused in her review of Born on the Fourth of July, ”(Tom) Cruise is sure- fire Oscar material.” The Richmond News Leader‘s Daniel Newman predicted Cruise ”is certain to receive an Oscar nomination, if not the statuette itself.” The temptation to tub-thump for Oscar seems to be more than many reviewers can resist — after all, it ensures that their own names will appear in a movie’s advertising, extolling the stars they so admire.

If, in fact, such Oscar-happy hypesters prove prescient, it is only because the whole Academy Awards process has become an exercise in consensus-building, not unlike a presidential campaign, in which all the surrounding polling and analysis serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. No wonder that in recent years — as odds-on favorites like Gandhi, Out of Africa, Platoon, and Rain Man walked off with Best Picture exactly as predicted — the opening of the final envelope has come to be terribly anticlimactic. Why, there hasn’t been a true upset winner since 1981’s Chariots of Fire broke out of the pack.

In part, of course, the studios themselves are to blame. With a Best Picture Oscar worth, by conservative estimates, at least $10 million to $15 million in added ticket sales, the $250,000 or more that a studio may spend in promoting each of its Oscar contenders in the Hollywood trade papers is considered money prudently invested. Not that trade ads guarantee a nomination — this year Warner Bros. devoted 49 pages of trade ads to Batman, which certainly didn’t suffer from any lack of public exposure, but garnered only one nomination for the effort.

But then, where the studios once controlled the consensus-building with their orchestrated publicity and advertising blitzkriegs, the willing media have now jumped into the breach. The Academy Award nominations, which used to be announced in Los Angeles at a relatively civilized 9 a.m., are now unveiled at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time, in order to accommodate the networks’ morning chat shows back East, all eager to broadcast live the first shot in the annual Oscar race. Before the nominees have even rubbed the sleep from their eyes, Good Morning, America‘s Joel Siegel is busy handicapping the field.

More august critics may hold themselves above the fray. Peter Rainer, president of the National Society of Film Critics and critic for the Los Angeles Times, observes, ”I would hope the critics’ groups are not thinking about influencing Oscar choices. If anything, they may have a bias against voting for the kind of picture that tends to be nominated for an Oscar.” Still, there’s no denying that My Left Foot‘s Daniel Day-Lewis became a virtual shoo-in for a nomination after he was named best actor by all three of the major critics’ associations this year.

Before the 4,700 academy members mark their final ballots, they are inundated by promotional mailings from movie studios. This year, a half-hour cassette of special effects from The Abyss was sent out, just in case voters hadn’t submitted to watching the entire film. And they are also exposed to endless, self-serving interviews: Two weeks before the final ballots were mailed, Tom Cruise popped up in multipart interviews on L.A.’s NBC and ABC affiliates. ”I don’t think academy members are seduced by all the volumes of quotes in the newspapers and magazines, all the fodder in the electronic media,” claims Lloyd Leipzig, an independent publicist who has ushered such films as Amadeus into the golden circle. ”I have a strange theory that Academy campaigns are more often lost than won. The overkill can create a backlash.”

The academy’s far-flung membership-ranging from Robert Redford and Meryl Streep to Annette Funicello and Judd Nelson — hardly deliberates in a vacuum. They can’t avoid the inevitable buzz, bubbling out of a witch’s cauldron of solicitous press agents, stampeding journalists, and interested bystanders: Born on the Fourth of July has peaked; Driving Miss Daisy has all the momentum; and, if there should be an upset, prepare to be surprised by My Left Foot. Everybody loves a winner, which is why, for all their attempts to manufacture suspense, the Oscars now play more like a foregone conclusion.