Campaigning for Best Picture -- A guide to the promotion strategies of nominees like ''Atonement'' and ''Michael Clayton''

Far be it from us to burst anyone’s bubble, but you don’t win an Academy Award on merit alone. Every year, between October and February, studio-employed strategists mount carefully plotted PR campaigns in the hopes of securing nominations and, ultimately, the Big Win. Back in the 1990s, when then ? Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein waged infamously aggressive efforts on behalf of his films, those campaigns became a blood sport. In recent years, a sense of greater civility has returned, at least on the surface. Stumping for Best Picture, however, is still a high-stakes game. ”It’s not always the best movie that wins,” says one seasoned Oscar promoter. ”It’s often the best campaign.”

As the industry counts down the final days to the ceremony, campaigners have been spreading the word to Oscar voters via old-fashioned methods (post-screening Q&A’s, parties, magazine covers, advertisements, film-festival glad-handing) and new ones (a mock-up of Juno’s bedroom has popped up at malls around L.A.). Each campaign is following its own playbook. Let’s flip them all open.

Speak Softly and Carry a Sawed-Off Shotgun
The Coen brothers’ dark, violent neo-Western No Country for Old Men may not be traditional Oscar fare, but by giving the film a splashy debut at Cannes last year, Miramax (and international distributor Paramount Vantage) clearly announced it was much more than a genre picture. ”They positioned it as a critics’ darling even before it was one,” says one Oscar strategist. ”They gave this very rural American tale a European stamp of approval, which was very smart.” The studio’s strategy has been reminiscent of the low-key ”non-campaign campaign” that proved successful for last year’s equally bloody Best Picture winner, The Departed, focusing less on chest-thumping and more on intimate Academy-member Q&A’s with the cast and directors. Not that such an understated approach is painless, says Michele Robertson, part of the team that orchestrated The Departed‘s awards push: ”Want to look at the bags under my eyes from that non-campaign campaign?”

It’s Good to Be the Front-Runner (Except When It Isn’t)
Based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, the lush, high-toned romantic epic Atonement has all the trappings of a natural-born Oscar contender. But having it branded by critics and bloggers as the odds-on favorite back in October presented Focus with the tricky task of managing expectations — last year’s early front-runner, Dreamgirls, collapsed under the weight of its own awards hype, after all. Still, inspiring Oscar chatter does have one practical upside. According to a rival campaigner, ”Focus kept the expectations up because it needed the box office.” When the film failed to score any major guild wins, though, the consensus was that it was dead in the water. Many were surprised it landed a Best Picture nomination. According to one competing strategist, Atonement owes its nod to older Academy members, who don’t listen as closely to online prognosticating: ”They really hadn’t heard that much about it, and it was right up their alley. It’s a love story!”

Go Positive
In a year in which nominees come dark, darker, and darkest, the quirky indie comedy Juno runs the other way, keeping with the Oscar tradition of spicing up the Best Picture race with one oddball film. The movie has become hugely profitable — it’s a bigger hit than any of the other nominees — but Fox Searchlight embraced its underdog status as a Best Pic contender and devised a chipper, brightly colored campaign to distinguish Juno from its heavier competitors. One rival strategist is frankly underwhelmed: ”It’s not original. They’re copying themselves from last year with Little Miss Sunshine.” Last year, Searchlight, which declined to comment for this article, sent bright yellow VW buses around L.A. to promote Sunshine; this year’s guerrilla-campaign tool has been ”Junoverse,” a re-creation of Juno’s world, which can be explored while parked at various sites, such as outdoor malls. ”I was sitting having lunch when I saw it,” says a source on a competing campaign. ”Boy, that felt like a jump-the-shark moment.”

It’s the Critics, Stupid
Paramount Vantage has hinged its campaign for Paul Thomas Anderson’s period epic There Will Be Blood on the M-word: masterpiece. For weeks, critical praise for the turbulent story about the early days of the oil business has filled multipage ads in the trades and newspapers like so much gushing black gold. ”Their ads are arresting — even their font is amazing,” says Lisa Taback, an independent consultant who worked on a number of campaigns, including for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Away From Her, and Sicko. ”[The message is] ‘This is the movie that will be around forever.”’ That’s not to say the campaign hasn’t also demonstrated a sense of humor; with Best Actor nominee Daniel Day-Lewis’ now-famous taunt ”I drink your milk shake” becoming the year’s unlikeliest catchphrase, Vantage recently delivered milk shakes to the press.

Put Your Best Face Forward
”Who doesn’t love George Clooney?” asks one longtime strategist, nicely summing up an opponent’s campaign for Michael Clayton. Though the tense legal thriller has only made $46 million at the box office (Warner Bros. recently rereleased it, in part, to keep it foremost in Oscar voters’ minds), its not-so-secret weapon, in terms of awards buzz, is the world-class charm of its marquee star. Put Clooney in a room with journalists and bloggers, add cocktails, and the rest takes care of itself. ”George has been everywhere,” says the aforementioned strategist. ”He went out and single-handedly sold this movie.” Lately Clooney has spent more time discussing the humanitarian crisis in Darfur than the Oscar race. At least someone in Hollywood seems to have his priorities straight.

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