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The Race: How to Win 101

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale
JoJo Whilden/Paramount

A case study on what late entry "The Fighter" must do to land best film

Can The Fighter possibly win the Oscar for best picture?

On the surface, the movie -- based on the true story of junior welterweight "Irish" Micky Ward's battle to earn a championship title -- has a massive amount going against it. For one thing, it entered the game oh-so-late, screening for the first time Nov. 10 as an AFI Fest sneak. For another, it inevitably will be compared to boxing classics like Rocky and Raging Bull. For a third, director David O. Russell (Three Kings) is hardly Mr. Popular -- he's famous for getting into fights with the likes of George Clooney.

But the picture, from Paramount, Relativity and Mandeville Films, not only has a good chance of getting nominated, it could even win -- if it follows the right strategy. Here's how:

1. Play to the voters
Among the Academy's 5,770 voting members, 1,184 are actors. Never underestimate them. Lionsgate certainly didn't four years ago, and its bold decision to send DVDs of Crash to all 100,000-plus SAG members in advance of Oscar balloting helped sway that crowd, leading to a best picture upset over Brokeback Mountain. With arguably the best ensemble cast of any movie this year -- led by Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams, all with shots at nominations -- the picture should follow Crash's strategy of winning over the thespians, using them to help position it as the underdog when bigger titles have played out.

2. Make it personal
Every winning movie is helped by a great backstory. Think Chariots of Fire would have won without producer David Puttnam defining it as the little-picture-that-could? Wasn't Rocky all about Sylvester Stallone's battle to play the lead -- even if that story turned out to be somewhat made up? Fighter has one of the best backstories of all: Wahlberg's four-year odyssey to get it made, including training each day to get in shape. Now Paramount should maximize the personal elements, bringing real-life Ward into the public eye. And it shouldn't veer away from what some insiders see as a negative: certain critics' belief that Bale steals the movie from Wahlberg. If Wahlberg stays modest, that will only build sympathy.

3. Play clean -- in public
There's a fine line between sparking chatter and getting trapped in a controversy of your own. Slumdog Millionaire came perilously close after negative press about the woeful payment its child stars received. And Mel Gibson may well have lost a directing nomination for Apocalypto because of that drunken rant. Unless issues emerge about Fighter's veracity, Paramount's biggest challenge may be ensuring its producers don't hog too much individual credit -- especially after reports of squabbles between Paramount and financier Relativity. Everyone knows David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman's Mandeville Films had the movie in development before Wahlberg was attached. So what? Let Wahlberg be the front man; he'll have coattails.

4. Play dirty -- in private
Negative press works -- which is why mysterious rivals (not the Weinsteins, heaven forbid!) did their best to spread word that A Beautiful Mind's hero, John Nash, was an anti-Semite. Beautiful Mind won the Oscar, but Russell Crowe lost his own statuette -- helped by bad press for threatening a BAFTA producer. You can bet if Fighter gains traction, rivals will start lashing out. Did Micky really deserve that title? Didn't his brother Dickie Eklund (Bale) cheat when he got a shot at his own championship bout? As insiders start mounting a "whisper" campaign -- yes, that's what these things are officially called -- Fighter shouldn't be afraid to hit below the belt. How accurate is that portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network? Wasn't 127 Hours' Aron Ralston just plain stupid getting caught in that canyon?

5. Use your talent well, but don't wear out their welcome
Wahlberg has the best people skills in the business and Paramount should make full use of them. It's already started by having him introduce Fighter at the AFI and offer to "shovel shit" for anyone who didn't like his baby. It even has a 60 Minutes profile in the works -- Wahlberg gave up four days for it. But the danger is overkill. Now it has to turn to other assets: Leo's an actor's actor; get her out in front of SAG audiences. Introduce Adams to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. one-by-one. Paramount has already started making such moves, having Wahlberg's fellow producers Hoberman and Lieberman host a fight party Nov. 13 for a few choice guests -- like, um, everyone at this magazine.

6. Play by the rules
Producer Nicolas Chartier's e-mail bad-mouthing Avatar nearly killed his own Hurt Locker last year. Financier Bob Yari threatened Crash in the same way when he waged a public battle claiming he should qualify for a producing Oscar. Contrast that with Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who have mastered the arcane rules for best foreign-language film, tailoring their releases to the aging voters who make up that committee. They've won three of the past four years' foreign Oscars. Oscar's rules favor Fighter: You don't have to be the voters' No. 1 pick in the best picture category; you gain points by being ranked among their favorite few. A bit of glad-handing -- especially at choice venues like the motion picture country home -- could sway just enough voters to count.

7. Peak late
It all looked so good for The Aviator in 2004. But Warner Bros. shrewdly saved Million Dollar Baby until after Aviator had soared and landed. Fighter missed out on Toronto, which kick-started The King's Speech and 127 Hours; it also missed the buzz that followed Social Network's Oct. 1 release. So what? It's mid-November; we've heard ad nauseam about Facebook's attempts to shut out Social; we've read too much about Speech writer David Seidler's stutter. As one insider said, "Enough already." Fighter, which opens Dec. 10, is perfectly positioned to deliver fresh news before the Golden Globes and SAG close their balloting. Fighter has floated like a butterfly; now it has to sting like a bee.   

Trophy Hunt: Awards news from all over

Robert De Niro will receive the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's DeMille Award on Jan. 16 during the 68th annual Golden Globe Awards, which will be broadcast live by NBC.

The Producers Guild of America will recognize Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin with its Visionary Award, for "uniquely positive or uplifting contributions to our culture," on Jan. 22 during the 22nd annual PGA Awards.

Courtesy of Lions Gate
Nagesh Ohal/India Today Group/Getty Images
Universal/Everett Collection
Warner Bros/Everett Collection
Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

The Hollywood Post Alliance presented its Life Achievement Award to Ted Gagliano, president of 20th Century Fox Feature Post Production, during its HPA Awards on Nov. 11.