The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Variety's Oscar ads going ... going ... gone

November 17, 2008 |  5:04 pm

In my mind's eye, I see Peter Bart standing outside Campanile, holding one of those cardboard signs you see in the hands of homeless men on street corners, except the Variety editor, being a good editor, has slightly reworked the message: "Will Work for Food Oscar Ads." That was the essential point of Bart's column in today's Variety--why hasn't everyone jumped into the pool, frolicking in the annual rites of Oscar overkill? As Bart put it: "Oscar '08 may go down as the year of the Great Non-Race."

By this time last year, according to Bart, the studios had sent him 24 movie screeners. This year: Three. I only read Variety online, so I asked a studio marketing chief to leaf through today's edition and count up the number of ads. It was sobering. The only studio in the pool was Warners, who took out a double-truck ad for "The Dark Knight," the studio presumably having made so much money on the film that it wants to give some of it away to a needy trade publication (or more likely, to impress director Chris Nolan so he'll consider making a lucrative sequel). The rest of the issue had a half-page ad for a Polish film, a quarter-page ad for a film from Taiwan and a third-page ad for "Last Chance Harvey."

That was it. The studio marketer told me that at this point in time three years ago, Variety would've had at least 10 or 12 pages of studio ads. Why the drop-off? Anyone paying attention to the outside world knows we're in the midst of a hideous global economic recession, with corporate profits plunging, the biggest U.S. carmakers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and tens of thousands of everyday Joes being laid off from their jobs. But Bart, like most Hollywood insiders, lives a life of privilege, putting those nice Campanile lunches on his expense account. So when he hears that GE's hurting or Sony's having a tough time, his reaction? "Hankies, please."

Desperate to drum up some business, Bart asks the rhetorical question: "Are the studios hanging the talent out to dry? Films like 'Milk," 'Doubt' or 'Frost/Nixon' need award nominations to find a mainstream audience." He even recruits Harvey Weinstein, the great Oscar showman of years past, to give Bart a money quote, with Harvey saying "If you don't pay for that big upfront Oscar campaign, you end up paying at the box office."

Harvey_weinstein I managed to track Harvey down to ask him point-blank: Isn't is actually entirely appropriate for media conglomerates to cut back on Oscar ads in the middle of a horrific recession? Won't the best movies get plenty of nominations anyway? His response: "No one has shown me yet that you'll get the nominations unless you spend the money in the trades," he says. "It certainly hasn't worked for me so far. We had years where we spent less on Oscar ads and left it to serendipity and it didn't work. Oscar advertising makes a real difference in these kind of movies' commercial success. I mean, where do we stop? Should we be getting rid of all of the Oscar PR people too? Oscar ads just make economic sense." (Harvey, I'll be counting up all your full-page "Reader" ads from now on to see if you put your money where your mouth is.)

Bart calls Weinstein's support for big Oscar campaigns sage advice. I call it outdated and ill-advised. When people are losing their jobs left and right, it's frivolous, not to mention nauseatingly narcissistic, for studios to be tossing away millions of dollars on Oscar campaigns when that money could be better spent in a thousand different ways. Imagine how you'd feel if you were one of the hundreds of employees that's been laid off at a media conglomerate, only to see that your company's film division still has plenty of dough left to run Oscar ads in Variety or the New York Times or my newspaper.

What really worries Bart is the prospect of someone getting an Oscar nomination without spending a dime on an Oscar campaign. It would be a big blow to his bottom line, but it would be a giant step forward in studio accounting--the kind of accounting that puts a priority on good judgment, not on the costly and trivial pursuit of silly prizes. 

Photo of Harvey Weinstein from the Associated Press