The 9/11 Oscar race
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Last month, Paramount Pictures held a cocktail party at the tony Hollywood restaurant Mortons to honor director Oliver Stone. Studio chief Brad Grey took the stage to praise the director for his work on "World Trade Center," which Paramount distributed. The movie's composer tapped out a few tunes from the film's original score, while star Nicolas Cage mingled with the assembled executives and movie-industry media.
Held under the guise of celebrating Mr. Stone's award for director of the year from the Hollywood Film Festival, the event was widely seen as the starting gun for Paramount's campaign for an Oscar nomination for "World Trade Center." After a few barren seasons at the Academy Awards, Paramount's top brass are determined to win recognition at next February's Oscar ceremony.
Paramount's attempt to tackle the 9/11 attacks might seem like an Oscar natural except for one problem: rival 9/11 movie "United 93" from Universal Pictures. While the two films tiptoed around each other at the box office this year as audiences questioned whether it was too soon for Hollywood to take on the subject, they are going head-to-head for an Oscar nomination.
Mindful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is unlikely to nominate both 9/11 movies for one of the five contender slots set aside for the Best Picture award, Paramount and Universal are preparing sharp-elbowed campaigns to reel in Oscar voters. In stark contrast to the low-key marketing they used when the two movies hit theaters, the studios are spending many millions of dollars to blitz Academy members with big-bang advertising and glitzy events such as the one at Mortons.
Each fall, studios lavish much time and money on campaigns aimed at winning an Oscar nod for their movies. The aggressive lobbying by filmmakers such as Harvey Weinstein for "Shakespeare in Love," "Chicago" and other movies proved that such promotion can pay off. "Crash" upset the apple cart by winning Best Picture at the last awards in March after a finely tuned campaign that targeted the biggest presence in the Academy: actors.
This year's Oscar playing field is wide open. Possible early contenders include Martin Scorsese's mob thriller "The Departed," the quirky, low-budget comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," the musical "Dreamgirls" (which opens next month) and Clint Eastwood's war epic "Flags of Our Fathers." But no title has yet emerged as a slam-dunk for a Best Picture nomination.
Both Universal and Paramount have strong motivation to get their 9/11 movies nominated. Universal has been an aggressive presence in the pre-Oscar race in recent years but has few other candidates to push this year. At Paramount, Mr. Grey is eager for some Oscar glitter after turning around the Viacom-owned studio. His boss Sumner Redstone also has been talking up the movie's Oscar chances around town.
To help craft its campaign, Universal's team has tapped former Weinstein strategist Tony Angellotti, who has guided 17 movies to best-picture nominations, including "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient." Paramount, meantime, has dedicated a sprawling team to its lobbying, including Hollywood public-relations maven Pat Kingsley.
Both campaigns share an obvious challenge: their subject matter. "United 93" is a documentary-style, real-time account of United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked jet that crashed in Pennsylvania. "World Trade Center" is a more polished drama about police officers buried in the rubble of the towers. While "United 93" literally ends with a plane crash, "World Trade Center" concludes with an uplifting rescue scene.
"It's going to be tough getting the voters to watch these movies," said Sasha Stone, editor Oscarwatch.com, a Web site dedicated to tracking the awards. "Who wants to devote their time to feeling awful for two hours?"
Historically, the Academy members have sometimes had trouble embracing difficult material based on real-life events. "Hotel Rwanda," a gritty drama about the civil war in that African nation, was snubbed in 2005 for a Best Picture nomination after winning nominations and awards in other competitions. After "Saving Private Ryan" missed out to "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999, the filmmakers of the war drama discovered that many Academy members hadn't seen the movie. (The Academy tells its 5,800-plus voters each year not to vote for films they haven't watched.)
If the box office is anything to go by, "World Trade Center" has had more success at finding an audience than "United 93." Pitching itself as a more elaborate Hollywood production about courage and survival, Paramount's movie sold about $152 million worth of tickets world-wide, while "United 93" brought in about half that, despite having an edge with the critics.
Indeed, a big part of Paramount's campaign is positioning its movie as the "successful 9/11 movie," based on its ability to draw a bigger audience. Two-page ads in Hollywood's trade publications this week featured the world-wide ticket sales figures for "World Trade Center" in huge print. Of course, the audience has little to do with how profitable each movie was: "World Trade Center" cost considerably more. But "United 93" does face a bigger challenge in creating the aura of being a big Oscar movie.
The Academy is set to announce its nominations on Jan. 23. (The Oscars awards ceremony is Feb. 25.) That gives the studios just six weeks to work on voters before the ballots are sent out.
The Universal team got a head start last month by blanketing Academy members with DVD versions of the films, called screeners. The team's challenge is to rebuild interest in the title: The movie came out in April, and publicity for the DVD debut in September has come and gone. Studios often release their Oscar contenders in the fall to keep them fresh in the minds of members. Still, "Crash" showed that an early-in-the-year release can succeed if it is backed by an aggressive push.
The "United 93" screeners arrived on desks and mailboxes in Hollywood at the same time as an expensive advertising campaign: eye-catching, three-page ads in newspapers and magazines featuring a single tagline on the first page: "A movie can matter." The ads used no images, just words, and played up the decent reviews the movie garnered. To some in the movie business, the big ads were more striking than the low-key campaign Universal used during "United 93"'s actual run in theaters.
By striking early, Universal hopes to get Oscar voters to see the movie before they get bogged down with other contenders. Following close on its heels, though, was the screener for "World Trade Center," which was released in theaters in August. Paramount is running continuous print ads showing dramatic images from the movie and also plans to use the DVD release of the movie next month to boost its Academy push. The DVD will be accompanied by yet more advertising and possibly another elaborate event featuring the stars.
The fact that "World Trade Center" is the product of a popular if polemic director and features a well-known cast including Mr. Cage may give the movie a leg up. For one thing, it will be considered in the acting-awards categories of the Oscars, something unlikely for "United 93" because that film used mostly unknown performers, with some people involved in the events that day playing themselves.
The big question is whether Paramount will wheel out survivors of the World Trade Center disaster to support its campaign. Both studios are aware that highlighting the filmmaking over the subject material is a safer route as the time to check off Oscar ballots nears. Academy members say they rarely vote to make a statement, which may have had something to do with why "Crash" overturned "Brokeback Mountain" at the last awards.
Ms. Stone says a big risk for the studios is that the audience for the two 9/11 movies may be divided and thus diluted, with members favoring one film or the other. "The two films might cancel each other out," she says. "There's a good chance that will happen."
Tough to Swallow
Movies featuring bleak or difficult subject matter have sometimes struggled to win over Oscar voters in the Best Picture category, even though many were big hits with critics and won awards elsewhere.
MOVIE: Leaving Las Vegas
YEAR RELEASED: 1995
PLOT: An alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. The depressing theme -- set close to home -- apparently turned off Oscar voters.
MOVIE: The Sweet Hereafter
YEAR RELEASED: 1997
PLOT: A bus accident kills most of a town's children. It was favored for a nomination but the sad theme may have prompted some voters to avoid seeing it.
YEAR RELEASED: 1999
PLOT: A dark tale of alcoholism and abuse. Some Oscar voters say the title alone was a turn-off.
MOVIE: Requiem for a Dream
YEAR RELEASED: 2000
PLOT: Four drug addicts spiral out of control in an explicit, nightmarish scenario that put off many viewers.
MOVIE: Road to Perdition
YEAR RELEASED: 2002
PLOT: Hitman on the run. The tragic ending cast a pall over voters.
MOVIE: Brokeback Mountain
YEAR RELEASED: 2005
PLOT: A critics' favorite, this tale of love between two cowboys managed to get nominated but was pushed aside at the final hurdle by the less provocative "Crash."
First Published November 10, 2006 12:00 am