Rules, schmules! Oscar hopefuls work around new guidelines

LOS ANGELES Wed Feb 22, 2012 1:48am IST

French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo attend an interview session about the film ''The Artist'' in Paris January 24, 2012.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo attend an interview session about the film ''The Artist'' in Paris January 24, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The January 31 photo opportunity for the film "The Artist" came courtesy of Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who presented the cast and crew of the film with the inaugural "Made in Hollywood" award. But the photo op wasn't just a feel-good ceremony to celebrate the movie.

It also served as a clever marketing opportunity for Harvey Weinstein, the movie impresario who has made a history of tweaking rules set by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to restrict Oscar campaigning.

With balloting for the Oscar only a month away, the event was aimed not so much at citizens of Tinseltown as at the nearly 5,800 Academy members who could vote for "The Artist," one of the nine films nominated this year for Best Picture.

"The Artist" is the only one among this year's contenders for the world's top movie awards that was truly filmed in Hollywood, and the plaque being presented to the makers of the black-and-white, mostly silent movie about 1920s Los Angeles was a none-too-subtle bit of lobbying to movie folk who have seen film jobs leave for Toronto, New York and elsewhere in recent years.

What's good for Hollywood is, naturally, good for the Oscars and good for show business.

"The Artist" wasn't the only Oscar hopeful using the marketing ploy of a thinly veiled civic or educational event this year. Fox Searchlight, a unit of News Corp., sponsored "A Tribute to Classic Family Dramas From Oscars Past and Present" and sent "The Descendants" star George Clooney to a question-and-answer session at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles.

The Fox studio event was co-sponsored by the nonprofit American Cinematheque, some of whose members are also Academy members.

Dreamworks, which produced the "The Help," a tale of Southern maids in the 1960s, sponsored a symposium on "the power of films to create social change" with the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

"It just felt organic," a Dreamworks spokesman said in describing the "Help" seminar, at which Oscar-nominated star Octavia Spencer and writer/director Tate Taylor appeared on the panel. "This was a movie that was about something, a movie that resonated with a lot of people because of what it stood for."

Fox executives declined to be interviewed for this story, and a spokeswoman for the Weinstein Co. had no comment.

Why the use of so many nontraditional and educational symposiums around Los Angeles this year? Studio executives had to get creative, because that's what they're paid for.

This year, the Academy clamped down on past Oscar campaigns that included lavish parties for members where the food and drink flowed. In September, the Academy passed new rules that prohibited receptions after screenings, a longtime Hollywood lobbying ritual, and limited to two the number of panel discussions that filmmakers can attend.

The rules also barred inviting Academy voters to attend events designed specifically to promote a nominated movie or individual. What the changes didn't prohibit was nominees like "The Help's" Spencer from attending a panel discussion at which she talked about growing up in the Southern United States and encouraged USC students to reach for their dreams.

"I'm just here to talk about how powerful a film can be to change people's minds," Spencer said after posing for pictures in the lobby of the Landmark Theater in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, where the seminar was taking place.

But it's not only prestige that Oscars bring. The box office for last year's winner, "The King's Speech," jumped 10 percent the week after the film was crowned, even though it had been in theaters nearly three months. This year, online ticket seller Fandango reported a doubling of ticket sales for "The Artist" and a 65 percent bump for "The Descendants" the day after they were nominated.

To meet that demand, the studios rolled out their films to more locations. "The Artist," for example, added nearly 800 theaters to its release schedule between the January 17 nominations and a recent peak on the February 3 weekend. Its U.S. and Canadian box office more than doubled over the same period, from around $9 million to more than $20 million. "The Descendants" also aggressively boosted its theater count, and "The Help," which was released in theaters late last summer, will look to increase DVD sales and future TV revenue from all the Oscar hype.

"You particularly see the Oscar bump for end-of-year indies, movies not fueled by star power," said Fandango editor-in-chief Chuck Walton. "Moviegoers are more selective these days, and once the competition has been narrowed, they'll take a chance on seeing a movie that's an Oscar winner."

And as studio executives know these days, it's hard to win an Oscar if you don't campaign for one.

(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Editing by Sheri Linden and Bob Tourtellotte)

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