Miramax's awards campaigns are first rate, but their recent releases aren't, says Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
January 12, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Chocolat: Miramax
  • Movie

”Chocolat”’s Oscar buzz is strictly PR

You may feel, as I do, that ”Chocolat” is an artifically flavored fudge product, a middlebrow bon bon manufactured to European specifications perfected at Disney’s Epcot Center. Or you may feel that ”Chocolat” is a sweet, creamy confection that goes down easy — especially after you’ve cracked a tooth on a sourball like ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Either way, I think you would agree that ”Chocolat” has about as much business making an appearance in any category on Oscar night as ”Duets.” And yet in the past few weeks, ”Chocolat” has been advertised, promoted, and marketed by Miramax as sure bet Academy Award material with a singleminded, braying, stuff your face with sugar display of hucksterism that outdoes even the studio’s own previous P.T. Barnum campaigns.

There’s a kind of genius to their methods, true, a savvy the company has exhibited on behalf of an impressive streak of Best Picture nominees as unlikely (and exciting) as ”The Piano,” ”Pulp Fiction,” and ”The Crying Game.” But in recent seasons, after ”The English Patient,” ”Shakespeare In Love,” and especially last year’s ”The Cider House Rules,” the story has become the bigness of the campaigns themselves. Meanwhile, it’s the movies that get small. And this year there’s a bigger than ever campaign to sway hearts and minds — and no movie at all.

The damnedest thing is, the hustle is working: No one seems to care that ”Chocolat” is about as tasty as that Monty Python treat, Crunchy Frog. The Raccoon Lodge outpost known as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association served up four Golden Globe nominations, thereby assisting the movie’s ad campaign. Members of the American Hollywood press willingly serve as unpaid flacks, spreading the company line — ”’Chocolat’ is a contender!” — without even the benefit of payment (or the appearance of Judi Dench at their dinner tables).

The barrage of print and on air ads is unceasing; the tie ins and posters are everywhere. I suspect only strict Academy by laws prohibiting influence peddling prevent voting members from being sent new VCR players boxed with autographed videocasettes and personal notes from Johnny Depp.

This year saw the most exhausted lineup of ”boutique quality” releases in Miramax’s history — ”Committed,” ”Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and ”All the Pretty Horses” among them. But goodness had nothing to do with it for the company’s hard driving pitchmen and women, who dutifully took handfuls of cinematic junk and passed the stuff off as…cool celebrity collectibles featuring camera ready Miramax Players including Ben and Gwyneth and dame of all she surveys Judi.

Pushing crud is hard, morale busting work. Small wonder that when ”Chocolat” came along — an innocuous trifle directed by Lasse ”The Cider House Rules” Hallstrom, and starring Juliette ”French and yummy” Binoche — the team rejoiced: At least it isn’t ”Reindeer Games,” ”Boys and Girls,” or that fried French historical drama ”Vatel!” En garde!

So, who are the dummies here: Miramax minions who are strenuously, creatively hawking a thoroughly unexceptional dessert mint of a movie hoping no one will notice its chemical aftertaste? Ticketbuyers who, conditioned by a relentless sales pitch, see the movie and say ”Uh…cute,” accepting cuteness as Good Enough For Oscar? Or bulimic members of the press who never met an Oscar conjecture they didn’t devour whole, then regurgitate? Cast your vote and pass the Gas-X.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 121 minutes
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