The Oscar campaign trail -- Studios push to get ''The Silence of the Lambs,'' ''Bugsy,'' and others nominated

Michael Lerner was working his way through the celebrity-studded crowd at Liz Taylor’s birthday bash at Disneyland last month when Shirley MacLaine rushed over and gave him a big, gushy hug. ”Actors I’ve never met before have been running up to me with nice things to say,” the 50-year-old character actor reports. ”I’ve been at it for 24 years, but now I’m an overnight success.”

One little Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor for Barton Fink) has turned Lerner into the most celebrated semi-obscure actor in America. Job offers and party invitations are piling up. Of course, his comic portrayal of a voracious movie mogul had a natural appeal to the film capital. ”Everybody in the industry knows this character,” Lerner says. ”I based him on Louis B. Mayer” — the MGM founder who, incidentally, helped start the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927.

Still, Lerner’s nomination for a small part in an arty film seen by few people was one of this year’s biggest surprises. How did he get it? Simple: Like many movie actors these days, he campaigned for it. Last November, Lerner hired a PR specialist, and they began mapping out a personalized Oscar strategy. His agent bought ads in the Hollywood trade papers (listing Fink‘s screening schedules for the many Academy members who hadn’t seen the $10 million film) and sent Lerner on schmoozing sorties to industry parties and premieres. ”It helped me get known,” he says.

Oscar politicking is a venerable sport in Hollywood, and its stakes are high: The additional box office that movies can earn after claiming Oscars, and the increased salaries winners can command in the future, make the annual Academy competition, as The Columbus Dispatch called it a few years ago, ”the biggest Greased Hog Chase in six decades.” ”Win or lose,” says MGM marketing president Greg Morrison, ”the studios are looking to enhance the value of their films and their filmmakers.” Not to mention enhancing the résumés of studio execs whose films win big.

According to an Entertainment Weekly tally of advertising and promotion, the major studios collectively spent about $7 million chasing after this year’s Oscars. That paid for full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, exclusive screenings of little-seen films, and mailings of videocassettes and glossy brochures to the roughly 5,000 voting members of the Academy. The studios won’t confirm how much they shelled out, but our estimates indicate the biggest spenders were TriStar (around $1 million to promote Bugsy, The Fisher King, and Terminator 2, among others), Disney (nearly $1 million, mostly for Beauty and the Beast, plus The Rocketeer), and Columbia (almost $900,000 for The Prince of Tides, City Slickers, Boyz N the Hood, and others). But there were plenty of rivals. Orion didn’t let bankruptcy stand in the way of promoting The Silence of the Lambs with a campaign costing about $325,000. Its nifty, jet black gift boxes containing videocassettes and soundtrack tapes helped Silence overcome the handicap of an early-’91 release and pull in seven nominations.

Of course, not all the drumbeating pays off in nominations or wins: A splashy campaign for Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon netted that L.A. story only one nomination. And not every plug is meant to pay off, at least not at the Oscars. ”They’re for people who don’t have a chance in hell of getting a nomination but the studio wants to romance their relationship,” says one producer. Disney, for instance, ran four ads touting Don Johnson as Best Actor for Paradise; he happens to be starring in the studio’s remake of Born Yesterday later this year. And TriStar’s plug for Schwarzenegger as Best Actor was (one surmises) merely the studio’s way of thanking Ah-nuld for the $204 million Terminator 2 brought in at the box office. ”They’re scratching the backs of the talent,” says MGM’s Morrison, ”and looking to be scratched back in the future.”

Budgets for Oscar campaigns have been trimmed since the high-living ’80s, when studios served up lavish banquets at Academy screenings, which means some filmmakers have had to foot the bills themselves. Carolco, for instance, had little money for an Oscar war chest this year, so Rambling Rose executive producer Edgar J. Scherick dipped into his own pocket to buy an Oscar promo in the trades. Rose director Martha Coolidge chipped in too and helped pay for Academy screening cassettes. Their efforts paid off in the Oscars’ first mother-daughter nominations, for Rose‘s Diane Ladd and Laura Dern. And like Michael Lerner, many actors spring for their own campaigns these days. Jack Palance hired a personal publicist to flog his performance in City Slickers and managed to lasso a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Cutbacks or not, though, studios are still spending what’s necessary when they believe a film has a genuine chance of winning. Columbia bought at least 24 pages of prenomination trade ads for Boyz N the Hood, more than was spent for any other film but TriStar’s Bugsy. The campaign may have helped Boyz‘ 24-year-old director, John Singleton, who has a four-year deal with the studio, in this year’s biggest Oscar coup: his nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. And in addition to its Oscar ads, Disney spent heavily on an image-building strategy to convince the public that Beauty and the Beast should be seen as a legitimate grown-up film as well as a kid’s movie. Beast previewed as a work in progress at the prestigious New York Film Festival, went on to become the top-grossing movie of the holidays, and is the first animated movie ever nominated for Best Picture.

Of course, not every nomination has a big-bucks campaign behind it. Robert De Niro’s role in Cape Fear earned him his sixth Oscar nomination. What, aside from his chilling performance, did he do to convince the Academy to vote for him yet again? Absolutely nothing.

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