The Oscars Endgame: An Expensive Way to Make a Last Impression

endgame_news.jpg

Thanks to the Academy's Directors Branch, rival films are adjusting their ads and spending big bucks in an attempt to score an upset victory — and WB is spending big to prevent it

As one of the most expensive Oscar races ever comes to a close, the Hollywood trade papers and a handful of consumer publications ought to be sending thank-you notes to the 371 members of the Academy's Directors Branch.

If those voters had gone the expected route and given a Best Director nomination to Ben Affleck for "Argo," this Oscar season would look a lot like last year, when "The Artist" romped to what appeared to be an easy victory, or 2011, when "The King's Speech" did the same thing.

In both of those years, one film won most or all of the guild awards and breezed to Oscar gold – and both times, the film's biggest rivals saw the writing on the wall long before the Academy Awards rolled around.

Ben AffleckBut this year, the fact that Affleck didn't get a director nomination means that if it wins, "Argo" will become only the fourth film in history – and only the second in 80 years – to win Best Picture without that directing nod.

Also read: An Open Letter to Oscar Voters on Best Picture Race

And that has emboldened rivals to believe that they have a real shot in a race that otherwise would appear all but wrapped up, given the string of "Argo" wins: the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble award …

So Disney and DreamWorks ("Lincoln") and the Weinstein Company ("Silver Linings Playbook") and 20th Century Fox ("Life of Pi") and Sony ("Zero Dark Thirty") are clinging to the idea that they have a real shot at engineering an upset, and Warner Bros. ("Argo") is doing everything it can to avoid that upset.

And that has led to an endgame of big expenditures and nonstop television and print ads attempting to get that final message to voters.

It will end, according to estimates by campaign veterans, with both "Argo" and "Lincoln" spending more than $10 million on ad campaigns, and with "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Life of Pi" and "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Les Miserables" making strong pushes late in the game as well.

So you get TV ads that are clearly aimed at Oscar voters, not moviegoers, with filmmakers and cast members trotting out talking points in between film clips. And making-of specials, and press releases pointing out that free copies of "Lincoln" are being sent to all middle and high schools the United States, or that "Silver Linings" director David O. Russell went to Washington to meet with Vice President Joe Biden and senators promoting a new mental health bill.

Silver Linings Playbook adAnd you get constant ads in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Hollywood trades (including TheWrap). On Saturday, for instance, one "Silver Linings Playbook" ad in the Los Angeles Times featured a quote from Roger Ebert not about the film's quality, but it's awards chances: "For Best Picture, more and more, from many different quarters, I hear affection for 'Silver Linings Playbook' … I sense a groundswell."

A few days earlier, the Weinstein Company ran four separate "Silver Linings Playbook" ads in the Los Angeles Times. One focused on director David O. Russell, one on star Jennifer Lawrence, one on co-star Robert De Niro and one on the film itself. (Poor Bradley Cooper is up against the Daniel Day-Lewis juggernaut, so he didn't get his own ad that day.)  

Last-minute splurges are a time-honored Oscar tradition, as are ads in consumer outlets that are really aimed at Academy voters (the better to hide the actual cost of an awards campaign). The 1999 battle between "Saving Private Ryan" and "Shakespeare in Love" is legendary, though both sides denied that expenditures hit the rumored $15 million level.

As this wild race comes to a close, here' a guide to the messages we're seeing in this year's endgame:

"Argo"
The message: We're the winner.

Actually, that's not the endgame message that "Argo" originally set out to deliver. After the nominations, television ads began to appear in which Ben Affleck talked about how at heart, his movie was about "storytelling" – a stretch, perhaps, but one that says to Hollywood, "this is your movie, all you storytellers."

Argo adBut that message is less important than the message that has been sent by victories at the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild: If you want to be on the winning team, go with "Argo."

Also read: Ben Affleck & Chris Terrio Dissect 'Argo' – and Defend Some Untruths

With a chance to win the first major-studio Best Picture Award since its own win for 2006's "The Departed" (and only the second in the last decade), Warner Bros. is going down to the wire with that message.

So Sunday's L.A. Times came with a wraparound cover, partially obscuring the paper's front page with a banner that spelled it out: "WINNER, BAFTA AWARDS; WINNER, SCREEN ACTORS GUILD AWARDS; WINNER, GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS; WINNER, CRITICS' CHOICE MOVIE AWARDS; WINNER, USC SCRIPTER AWARD; WINNER, DIRECTORS GUILD AWARDS; WINNER, PRODUCERS GUILD AWARDS."

Lincoln "Lincoln"
The message: We're the important movie.

From the start, "Lincoln" has played things big and classy and a bit remote; while Affleck has charmed every room where he might find a handful of voters, guild members or pundits, Steven Spielberg has for the most part remained above the fray,

Now, the message is getting more pointed: This is a movie both from and for the history books.  "His Story Is Our Story," is the ads' current tag line, with quotes like "'Lincoln' belongs to the ages" and ads that reverently detail the contributions from each of the film's nominated filmmakers, actors and craftsmen.

Disney Educational Productions' Feb. 12 announcement that it would be giving free copies of the film to all public and private middle and high schools in the country was one more (nicely timed) indication that the film is simultaneously spending lots of money and taking the high road.

But does it also emphasize what might be the film's Achilles heel – the perception that it's good for you, an accomplishment to respect and admire rather than one to love and embrace?

Silver Linings Playbook"Silver Linings Playbook"
The message: We're serious, too.

The awards-season wins for "Silver Linings" have often come at shows that have separate categories for comedies: the Golden Globes, the Critics' Choice Movie Awards and Saturday's ACE Eddie Awards, among others.

But after Russell's film won some comedy awards and landed seven Oscar nominations, including a rare sweep of all four acting categories, the Weinstein campaigners began insisting that it wasn't really a comedy after all – or that if it was, its laughs were secondary to its theme of mental health.

Russell began to talk more and more explicitly about how he'd made the movie for his son; when other people from the film won awards, they brought it up, too, as if they were all working from the same, um, playbook.

And late in the game, as balloting finally began, Russell went to Washington to talk to Biden and the Senate, while Robert De Niro suddenly began appearing (and crying!) on Katie Couric and getting his hand prints at the Chinese Theatre and otherwise behaving as if he were actually campaigning.

(De Niro is getting his own endgame message: It's been 32 years since he's won, and he's overdue. Weinstein played this card last year with Meryl Streep, and it worked; the difference is that Streep had been nominated 12 times over the 29 years she'd gone without a win, while De Niro has been nominated only twice, and not at all in 21 years. It may be harder to sell the narrative that he's overdue after he's spent a decade making movies like "Meet the Fockers.")

Also read: How David O. Russell 'Grew Up' to Become the Ultimate Actors' Director

Harvey Weinstein and his team are always good at finding a second message in the final round of voting – and when they're not the frontrunner, they're very good at establishing their movie as the alternative to that frontrunner.

Zero Dark Thirty ad"Zero Dark Thirty"
The message: Pay no attention to the criticism – we've got heavy hitters on our side.

With its brutally propulsive filmmaking and moral ambiguity, "Zero Dark Thirty" originally seemed as if it might blow "Argo" out of the water – but after a barrage of criticism from several U.S. senators and others over its depiction of torture, its toughness drove voters toward the more uncomplicated, Hollywood-ized pleasures of Affleck's film.

The initial criticisms came right at the time when voting on nominations was taking place, and they clearly wounded the film's chances. But in the second round, Sony has capitalized on the fact that the criticism by the likes of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. John McCain and Academy member David Clennon now seems distant, and the film has been more recently championed by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, "Lincoln" writer Tony Kushner and attorney Alan Dershowitz, among others. 

Also read: Leon Panetta, 9/11 Families Join Chorus of Support for 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Using the near-one-month gap between the nominations and the beginning of final voting, the narrative has had time to turn in favor of "ZDT" – but the question of whether it's too little, too late lingers.

A full-page ad last week simply reproduced a New York Times piece not from the entertainment section, but from the op-ed page, where former Afghan correspondent Roger Cohen dismissed the film's critics, praised the nuance and ambiguity of Kathryn Bigelow's film and called it "a courageous work that is disturbing in the way that art should be."

"Life of Pi"
The message: It's about humans, not just CG tigers.

Life of PiAfter landing 11 nominations for director Ang Lee's visionary epic, Fox has been trying out a new tag line, "The Story is Yours Now," that both plays off a key line in the film – "which story do you prefer?" – and puts the film's fate in the hands of voters.

The imagery in some of the new ads, meanwhile, has shifted from the movie's spectacle – a boy and a tiger adrift in a boat on a mirror-like sea – to its humanity. The movie may focus on the relationship between the boy and the tiger, and it may spend its lengthy central section at sea – but of the seven shots in one frequently-used recent print ad (detail above), only one is of the computer-generated tiger, and only one is from the sequence at sea.

Also read: How Ang Lee Took a Tiger by the Tail to Create 'Life of Pi'

The other six focus on the teenage boy played by Suraj Sharma and his relationship with his mother, his girlfriend and his family. In other words: Forget about that first iconic image of the boy, the tiger and the boat, because this is a story about human connections.