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Oscar spin machine hums to life early

Publicists scramble to screen nominated movies
/ Source: The Associated Press

As first light spread across Hollywood, the spin machine hummed to life.

“I’ll take the 5:15 on the 9th,” Steve Elzer called out from the front row of a dimly lit theater on the third floor of Academy Award headquarters.

Only an hour after Oscar nominations were handed out Tuesday, the frenzied three-week campaign to capture Academy Award votes was well under way, with movie publicists scrambling to book prime slots to screen their films.

As soon as actor Adrian Brody and academy President Frank Pierson finished reeling off nominees, the rush was on. A herd of publicists flowed from the theater to the lobby, clamping cell phones to their ears or furiously punching messages into their Blackberries.

Some plopped on the carpeted floor and others leaned against the wall as they breathlessly strategized with studio executives, agents, managers and other publicists. For the unlucky ones, no news was bad news — like Paul Giamatti’s snub in the best-actor category for “Sideways,” or “Fahrenheit 9/11” director Michael Moore getting shut out.

Pity the publicist waking up director Mel Gibson to report “The Passion of the Christ” was left out in the major categories — but hey, there’s always cinematography, makeup and score.

“It’s heartbreaking sometimes,” said Hollace Davids, senior vice president of special projects at Universal. “You work with these people before the movie opens and afterward. We invest a lot of time, energy and money trying to make things happen.”

Davids had nothing to worry about — her “Ray” nabbed six nominations, including a surprising nod for best picture.

“Now you get ready for the next round,” said Michele Robertson, who was promoting seven-time nominee “Million Dollar Baby.” “Going for the win.”

For Robertson, at least, there was more to be gained than Academy votes.

“A best picture (nomination) will help open the movie wider. It’s also about generating interest and buzz in the movie with the public. You’re thinking about the whole life of the movie.”

Some publicists peeled out for nearby hotels, where “the talent” — mainly actors and directors — waited to make media appearances.

Others juggled phone interviews for out-of-town talent, and some publicists scurried around the theater making sure the few hundred reporters covering the nominations had what they needed to talk up their nominees.

Upstairs, publicists drew numbers in the lottery that decided when their movies would be shown for voters in the academy’s two theaters between Jan. 30 and Feb. 20. Oscar ballots are due Feb. 22; the ceremony is Feb. 27.

The prime slots for the free screenings were weekends, preferably evenings. “That’s when you have the widest audience available,” said Elzer, senior vice president of media relations at Columbia Tristar. “The key to this race is to get people to see your film.”

Least desirable? Weekday afternoons, of course.

Elzer didn’t fare so well in the lottery. He ended up picking 16th and by then, many of the best spots were gone.

Moray Greenfield, the academy’s theater operations coordinator, waited patiently while Elzer considered a slot for “Closer,” a caustic tale of romantic infidelity that snagged supporting acting nominations for Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.

Another publicist agonized over where to place “Troy,” the three-hour Brad Pitt epic nominated for costume design. Her colleagues whispered advice, and the film fell into a 9:13 p.m. weekday screening behind the big green ogre of “Shrek II.”

When “Closer” and “Kinsey,” the story of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, landed back-to-back on a Friday in February, one publicist joked, “That’s a sexy afternoon.”

By 7 a.m., the academy’s theaters were booked nearly solid and the publicists were on their way after a round of hugs, congratulations and — for the less fortunate — expressions of sympathy.

“We’re all supportive,” said Davids, “but competitive.”