Keeping quiet a legit strategy for courting Oscar

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If you think you've heard every Oscar trick in the book, try this one on: The newest way to promote a movie to voters might be not to promote it at all.

When Focus Features opens its awards-season contender "Atonement" next week, it will be the latest experiment in what might be called the anti-hype movement.

The Joe Wright movie about forbidden love during World War II had a splashy debut in September at the Toronto International Film Festival that saw critics fawn and mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly describe the "great fanfare" of its premiere.

But after the festival, the Universal specialty division did the unexpected: It went quiet, or "hid the film" in the company's parlance. Execs limited screenings, publicists encouraged only select media and the division eschewed talk about the film right up to its release.

"We said, 'This movie is so powerful, we don't want to hype it and let anyone else define it for us.' We just wanted it to speak for itself," Focus president James Schamus said.

Consider it playing against hype. It's a strategy marked by understatement that isn't the typical false humility of awards season but rather an effort to manage expectations, maximize dwindling marketing budgets and prevent Oscar chances from dying in the boxoffice bloodbath that claims a new specialty-picture victim almost every week.

Trade ads, guild screenings and other trappings of awards season remain a fixture of campaigning, of course. But in the quantity and quality of promotion, these campaigns take a different tack. Media screenings are limited, trade and television ads start later, campaigns go less specific.

Ever since the season was shortened a month by the Oscars' move to February, the buzz has started earlier and grown louder. Toronto has become a kind of Super Tuesday where dreams are launched or crushed. May's Festival de Cannes is an Iowa caucus that paints an early portrait of a race. Even January's Sundance, with its substantial awards fare on offer, has become like a presidential exploratory committee, testing Oscar waters eons before they can be understood.

All the hype means that it's easy for the movies to peak too soon. The latest textbook case is "Dreamgirls." Months ahead of Cannes and nine months before its release, DreamWorks touted footage from the Bill Condon musical. The half-hour shown at Cannes was the most-talked-about reel on the Croisette in years.

But besides Jennifer Hudson's win for best supporting actress, the movie was shut out of the top Oscar categories.

"(The fate of) 'Dreamgirls' last year has sent a shiver and a shudder over how campaigns are done and changed the thinking of Academy strategists," said an executive at a large specialty division.

The idea of going easy on the hype in perhaps the most hype-filled competition in the Western hemisphere might seem not only counterintuitive but also laughable. And publicists, for reasons constitutional and professional, tend not to highlight a strategy that involves less publicity.

But those who are quietly practicing the silent treatment say that in a season when so little seems to work at the boxoffice, and after a few years of upside-down Oscar races, a contrary impulse might be the best impulse.

In addition to Fox Searchlight's one-two punch of Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" and "Juno" (the Diablo Cody-Jason Reitman collaboration initially wasn't even slated for a 2007 release but now is quietly being prepped for an Oscar push), other candidates include Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters" and the Iraq War-themed John Cusack movie "Grace Is Gone" from the Weinstein Co., Paramount Vantage's Paul Thomas Anderson period epic "There Will Be Blood," DreamWorks' Tim Burton musical "Sweeney Todd" and "Atonement."

Just the below the radar, though, the campaigns are putting their artillery in place. With deadlines for critics' groups and Golden Globe voting fast approaching, such movies as "Charlie Wilson's War" and "Sweeney," still wet from the lab, began press screenings this week. While playing it low-key, other films like "Blood" already have held the strategic filmmaker Q&A.

By Dec. 13, when the Globes nominations are announced, the recipients are sure to bask in the attention, and by year's end even the most reticent contenders will be engaged in the battle.

The anti-hype movement isn't just reserved for December films, either. Earlier releases, having exhausted their 15 minutes, can paradoxically come back reborn if they peaked prematurely. Paul Haggis' Iraq-themed "In the Valley of Elah," a September release that quickly began losing theaters in October, is said by sources to be prepping for a comeback as Warner Bros. hopes the late onslaught can work "Crash"-type magic.

One movie that fit the model last year: "Little Miss Sunshine." Fox Searchlight had six months -- including three with DVDs out -- to promote the August release before the Oscars. But the studio went quiet for months, and when it did roll out the campaign it used understated, even abstract ads featuring the movie's VW bus and little of the usual woo about specific award pitches.

"It was very simple. We wanted to remind people what they felt when they saw the movie instead of telling them how to feel," Searchlight publicity chief Michelle Hooper said.

That's a key tenet of the anti-hype movement. Academy members are more likely to vote for a movie, it states, if they have to do a certain amount of work to find it. The theory says that not only are these voters indifferent to come-ons -- "Every studio gets suckered in to spend big on events and consumer ads, and they don't make a bit of difference" is how one veteran awards specialist puts it -- they actually prefer not to be sold a movie.

The past few years offer some strong evidence for that theory. While quirky and not easily emulated, the examples form a pattern that execs say is getting harder to ignore.

There's certainly no formula for a successful awards campaign, but in 2004, "Million Dollar Baby," a movie that few expected even to be released that year, swooped in to win the best picture prize with only eleventh-hour campaigning.

In 2005, a backlash against the early anointing of "Brokeback Mountain" resulted in "Crash," a spring release not even talked about as a contender for much of the season, landing the best picture win.

And last year, "The Departed" rode to four Oscars by doing everything conventional wisdom and recent Martin Scorsese campaigns didn't: actively avoiding all mention of awards until other front-runners already were established.

Of course, not every movie is eligible for the anti-hype treatment. "Atonement," with its Oscar-ready ingredients of epic love and period drama, might be able to coast on its merits more than the intimate and painterly French-language film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

There are other caveats. Studios can't always control buzz, even when they want to. And the notion of not hyping a movie forms its own kid of hype (witness this article).

Finally, the line between a campaign that chooses not to seek buzz and one that tries but simply can't conjure it up is a thin one.

And while it's hard to separate circumstance from design -- word on Anderson's "Blood," for instance, has been limited because the movie only recently was finished -- all these films are nonetheless hoping that laying low now will help them rise later.

It's also a way to stay out of the unpredictable clutches of a proliferating group of bloggers. With those online voices amplifying even small stories -- witness the Movie City News item last week, since retracted, that the Weinstein Co. would put up Cate Blanchett for best actress for "I'm Not There" -- some studios reason that it's better to stay away from the buzz saw than risk getting chopped up in it.

Still, this year might prove a good test of the school's potential, with several low-hype movies going up against more conventional rollouts like Miramax's "No Country for Old Men." The buzz gears were cranking on the Coen brothers' passion project even before the lights came up on the premiere in Cannes. Now it just has to keep them churning all the way into February.
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