The English Patient sweeps the board at the Hollywood Oscars and the British film industry glows with pride. Never mind that the money to make the film came from the US, and the team which made it came from eight countries in five continents: several of its stars are British, along with director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella, so Britain of course claims it as a triumph.
But it is also something of a triumph for the marketing department of the film’s principal American backer, Miramax, and the $650,000 the company spent promoting the movie to the voting members of the Hollywood Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences – a target audience of 5,000 mostly elderly representatives of the Los Angeles film community.
Oscar nominations don’t just happen. Barring the occasional fluke, they’re the culmination of some of the most carefully plotted marketing campaigns known to man. Russell Schwartz, the president of Gramercy Films (US distributor of Fargo, which this year got seven nominations), likens them to US political campaigns in their intensity and sophistication.
There’s even a kind of “negative campaigning”, summed up in the whispers around Hollywood denigrating the British Secrets & Lies (five nominations, but no Oscars), on the grounds that no-one in LA had heard of Brenda Blethyn, up for best actress, or Marianne Jean-Baptiste (best supporting actress), and that director Mike Leigh shouldn’t get the screenwriting award because his films are improvised.
Gramercy spent no less than $800,000 promoting Fargo and two other films – and came away with the best actress Oscar for Fargo’s star, Frances Macdormand, and best documentary for its film about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, When We Were Kings.
The company was lucky. A couple of years ago it might have had to spend $1m or even $2m (1.3m), but this year the Academy, sensitive to the accusation that it might be possible to “buy” an Oscar nomination, outlawed the free gifts – ranging from glossy books to leather jackets – with which film studios were beginning to shower Academy members.
Now, the money goes on trade press advertising… and video-cassettes. The Academy’s membership is divided into sections – directors, screenwriters, actors and so on – and those in each section nominate possible Oscar winners in their special area; the nominations are published in January and the entire membership then votes on the winners in preparation for the Oscar ceremony itself six weeks later.
This year, the 5,000 members got no fewer than 63 videos each. Of those Schwartz, one of the Academy’s younger members, maintains that only 25 are truly Oscar contenders: he gives the rest to his four-year-old son to play with (“they’re bigger than blocks and just as effective”) or lends them to friends.
John Kohn – a retired screenwriter who was himself nominated for an Oscar in 1965 for his adaptation of John Fowles’s novel The Collector – claims this bombardment is quite unnecessary. He goes to special Academy screenings of films, and gives his tapes away to local hospitals, denying that the lobbying in the trade press influences him.
But that won’t stop companies like Gramercy. The commercial rewards of an Oscar nomination are just too big to be ignored. In 1993, Schindler’s List almost trebled its box office revenue in the six weeks between nominations and the Oscar night itself. This year two of the most nominated films, Shine and The English Patient, virtually doubled their box office in the same period.
Fargo took only an extra $1m (700,000), but that was because the film – a black comedy set in the snow of wintry North Dakota and directed by cult favourites the Coen Brothers – had been released at the wrong time of year, in the early spring.
That presented Gramercy with two problems. The first was that it couldn’t reap the same commercial rewards as some other nominated films, although it’s done very well in the video stores and the next Coen Broth ers film is virtually guaranteed success.
The second was the risk that Academy members would have forgotten the film by the time they came to fill out their nomination forms. Most films with Oscar potential are released in November or December. Portrait of a Lady, with two nominations, appeared in the US cinemas only on December 29, just qualifying as a 1996 picture.
Gramercy’s solution was to send out a cassette of Fargo in October, a month before any other studio, accompanied by a trade press advertising campaign. “Fargo became the litmus test against which other films were judged,” claims Schwartz, who also believes he could halve his spending on trade press ads without damaging his prospects of nominations.
“The ads are more about ego gratification for agents, managers and publicists,” he adds, “but this – the video-cassette – is what really matters. The movie must speak for itself.” That’s a sentiment echoed by Kenneth Turan, the film critic of the Los Angeles Times: “For all this talk of strategies, it really helps if you have a good movie.”
And the kinds of films which get Oscars are, by and large, good movies: quirky, with interesting characters and well-written scripts, original stories and a distinctive vision and modest budgets. It’s one reason why British films tend to do rather well, and why big commercial pictures from the Hollywood studios get so few nominations.
They are of course just the sort of films to benefit from a second viewing, at home, on video. Even quality needs a helping hand from the marketing department.