Big campaigning for Oscar shorts

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Sexy Oscar races such as best picture and best director might sport prohibitive front-runners, but those looking for intense awards jockeying might turn to ... live-action shorts?

A surprising amount of manpower is being expended on small races or contenders this year, with the shorts contest in particular a touchstone for how developed -- or overdeveloped -- the Oscar industrial complex has become.

Powerhouse publicity shop agents have been brought on, media is being courted, and events are put together for the collection of mini-features.

The Swiss Consulate General is throwing an Oscar week reception at Raleigh Studios for urban-isolation drama "On the Line." The filmmakers behind the German Holocaust short "Toyland" -- probably the strongest film in the lot -- want you to come to a director reception and Q&A this weekend. Irish nominee "New Boy" has MRPM flogging it. The Danish Film Institute has taken out trade ads promoting "The Pig."

And you thought nominees like "Frost/Nixon" and "The Reader" seemed specialized.

Magnolia and Shorts International have teamed up in the past few years to distribute nominated shorts on DVD and in theaters, nobly raising the profile of what's generally a quality crop of films. But the truth is, the Oscar industrial complex was all over it anyway.

The growth in the number of consultants and the desire of small entities -- particularly foreign film commissions -- to leverage their 15 Oscar minutes is partly responsible for the rise. So is the calendar, which has shifted in a way that's conducive to an escalation.

"There's an influx after the nominations in these specialized categories," said one awards consultant, "because once the season got shortened, there became a very short window when they could influence the process."

An increase in consulting and publicity -- not to mention stories about it -- happen every year. But it seemed even more pronounced this year. And, yet again, it raises the perpetual Oscar question of how-much-is-too-much.

The foreign-language also race has seen an escalation. With the committee picking at least one left-field choice every year -- and with the added step of a nine-picture shortlist offering more opportunities for bragging rights -- Hollywood publicity firms were enlisted to campaign for submissions from countries such as Chile, Lithuania and others not historically known for Oscar prowess.

This year has also seen the growth of what might be called the long-shot industrial complex -- campaigns for underdogs in bigger races. Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt (in small movies) come to mind; these aren't megastars getting an obligatory campaign but less prominent actors who for one reason or another (a small distributor looking to capitalize on their star, for example) get pushed.

"There were several campaigns this year where someone was just spending for the sake of spending," said one studio publicist who has worked on a large number of awards campaigns. "That's not always a bad thing. But you have to be careful. You don't ever want to guide someone into a hopeless campaign. It's not good for anyone.

Then again, there's something substantive even to smaller races.

Shorts winners like Ari Sandel and Andrea Arnold have ridden victories to other gigs. And while it's unlikely to ring the chimes of audience-minded producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, races in typically underplayed categories like shorts can contain drama.

On the animation side, artier indie films have tended best to Pixar nominees over the past few years, making for upsets one doesn't see in the feature animation category.

The live-action side also sees its share of intriguing story lines. Two years ago, Martin McDonagh (who later wrote and directed "In Bruges") made his Oscar debut when he won a shorts trophy -- for a movie that featured an attempted murder-suicide of a man and his rabbit. The film won out -- to the chagrin of a certain awards columnist -- over the delicate family drama of the Icelandic selection and the black comedy of an American one.

This year, the topicality of the Muslim-themed "Pig" will go against the raw power of "Toyland," which features a missingchild, and the melancholy poeticism of the French "Manon on the Asphalt." Sometimes when the high-profile contests seem long over, all we have is shorts.
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