Off the Carpet: Contenders hope to stand out against big spending and buzz-heavy pics

Posted by · 9:09 am · December 5th, 2011

Tying Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” to the times has been a bit of a dubious game of connect the dots to me all season long. Much as I love the film (which walked away with two key prizes at last week’s New York Film Critics Circle awards vote). I respect that there are universal truths therein, but I think thrusting the faux gravitas of zeitgeist onto it is a stretch.

Nevertheless, I think the film does speak to a more specific and, for our purposes, applicable idea: awards season campaign spending.

Reading through Patrick Goldstein’s recent column at the Los Angeles Times calling for a luxury tax on studios that spend over a pre-determined cap (good idea), it got me thinking of what it takes to stand out in an Oscar season, the creativity involved, and indeed, the creative spending. Not everyone can be the New York Yankees this time of year, but with the right brain trust, anyone can be the Oakland Athletics.

The thing about Oscar season is that it’s not about getting people to like your movie. It’s about getting people to watch your movie. Anne and I are always talking on Oscar Talk about the intimidating pile of screeners that accumulates on voters’ shelves every year. Everyone is going to watch “War Horse,” “The Artist,” “The Help” — movies everyone is talking about. The trick is getting people to put your movie into the player, too.

So you get creative.

J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” for instance, landed at Sundance way back in January. An October 21 limited release was set but it was in danger of losing ground to the more visible awards heavies of the fall. A video-on-demand release strategy has kept it not only relevant, but caused it to appear unique amid the fray. Sitting there on television for an affordable eight bucks, it has not only reached a significant audience but has become a story as a result.

Another example of standing out — not that a film from a recently Oscar-nominated director and a movie star billing necessarily needs to — is Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult.” This was more an example of a movie that needed to wade into the season rather than make a festival splash. The pop-up screening strategy did that and it made the film a talking point and a unique element of the usual business of things.

Some films have inherent qualities that are merely embossed as a marketing ploy. The NC-17 rating for “Shame” is probably the most effective tool in its arsenal right now, because people are talking about it. The curiosity factor triggers and suddenly you’ve hooked a member who’s watching the film. Maybe he or she will loathe it, but you’ve at least got their consideration, and that’s more than half the battle.

“We Bought a Zoo” sneaked over the Thanksgiving weekend to build buzz. “Midnight in Paris” stayed in theaters until it became Woody Allen’s highest-grossing film and delayed its DVD release until the Christmas holiday. Everyone is looking to stand out in some small way.

There’s also the oldest trick in the book: the re-release. The Weinstein Company gave that a shot this year with “Sarah’s Key.” But while there may have been a slim chance of getting Kristin Scott Thomas into the Best Actress conversation for the film, the goal might have been adding more box office dollars by creating the aura of “awards contender” around it (a classic Weinstein strategy that is pretty much standard for any number of smaller contenders these days).

Which brings up an interesting point. The Oscars were created as a marketing ploy from day one. It was about getting people to come see more films. The appreciation of art and business have always gone hand-in-hand. And often, in the modern climate, the seal of Oscar recognition is merely a tool for generating cash flow.

But even after all that, getting there can ultimately be too pricey. Eventually it boils down to the simple question: Is it worth it? “The Wackness” and “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” producer Keith Calder put it rather succinctly on Twitter last week:

“I believe in campaign finance reform, lobbying reform and award season campaign reform. Low grossing quality films have to choose between losing money because of the cost of campaigning or not being a viable contender. I say this as a producer with no film in the race, just observing the race is rigged. The cost of the campaign drastically outweighs the benefits of being nominated, and often the benefits of winning.”

Sometimes the smartest business play is just hoping you get on base on — gasp! — merit alone.

Guy and I have run a comb through the Contenders section once again. The sidebar predictions reflect thouse changes.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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