Mike Fleming

Osc2Who’s kidding whom? We know that almost all the marquee categories are virtually decided. Which leaves only Best Picture and Best Director (and maybe Best Actress) nominations with any suspense at all. There’s tension galore, for once. The studios, and their majors and minors and distributors and marketers, all had an extra two weeks to campaign until the Oscar broadcast March 7th. But is anyone spending like the good old days (i.e. the Weinsteins’ heyday)? I’ve called around and seasoned Oscar observers say no, resoundingly.

Gone are the days when ego and bragging rights prompted studios and studio-backed indies to cough up tens of millions of dollars just to sway Academy members. It’s estimated that spending campaigns this year will range from a pittance of $500,000 to a middling $5 million. “And most of us are going to play in the low end,” one top studio exec told me. Contrast that to the routine $15-plus million spent in the late 1990s-early 2000s.

This year, there’s a sober reality among contenders like Alcon Entertainment, whose nominee The Blind Side was nearing a $240 million domestic gross when the noms arrived. Andrew Kosove, Alcon partner and one of the film’s three producers, expects to spend 6-figures for a race he doesn’t feel he will win.

“I believe we deserved to be nominated, but in my personal opinion, this is between Avatar and The Hurt Locker,” Kosove told me. “Just being nominated, and having Sandra Bullock emerge as a possible winner for Best Actress, will have a real impact on our bottom line. It will help a tiny bit domestically. Where it really matters is it boosts DVD value which was already tremendous, and makes viable a movie that normally isn’t viable internationally.”

Nevertheless, Alcon’s spending will largely subsidize an ongoing Sandra Bullock promotional tour that some feel has given her a slight edge over Julie & Julia star Meryl Streep.

But Oscar nominations are a powerful marketing tool, right? Experts tell me that the DVD marketplace has become so static that District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Up, and A Serious Man only gain nominally from big spending.

The wild card is The Hurt Locker, whose modest $13.4 million gross indicates a film ripe to be discovered in ancillary windows. Its distributor Summit Entertainment, flush with Twilight money, can burnish its profile by bringing in an underdog Best Picture winner, like Lionsgate did with Crash. I’m told Summit backed a small theatrical re-release, but won’t go crazy and part with the profits made on a festival film acquired at a bargain price. This past weekend, Summit worked with exhibitors who wanted to run The Hurt Locker after its nomination. This, in spite of the fact that the DVD has been selling quite well since January 12th.

This also was the start of Crazy Heart‘s 8th week, but this weekend marked the first fully national week of release. That’s because the Fox Searchlight film scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges, considered the shoo-in for that category. The pic expanded into 819 theatres and will likely expand further on February 12th into 1,000+ dates. As a result, Crazy Heart reached the Top 10 this weekend for the first time in its run. It’s also having the strongest post-Oscar nod bounce.

Most of the Best Picture noms in theaters are near the tail end of domestic runs. And, while screen counts will change, P&A plans already in place won’t. Fox, though flush with Avatar grosses, doesn’t need an aggressive Oscar push for a film everyone has seen.

Lionsgate will triple its Precious screen count to nearly 700 screens in hopes that 6 nominations including Lee Daniels, Mo’Nique and Gabourney Sidibe might prod more of the crossover crowd to give the film a chance.

For Up In The Air, Paramount will raise from 1400 to 1500 screens this weekend and do a modest consumer push this weekend with TV, radio, newspaper and online advertising to vamp its noms for Best Picture, George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, and Best Director and Adapted Screenplay.

Also well positioned to take advantage is An Education. Sony Pictures Classics heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard pre-booked a tenfold increase to 760 screens this past weekend, a gambit that looks good after noms for Best Picture nom and Carey Mulligan’s nod for Best Actress. “Spending massive amounts on an Oscar push makes no sense, but films in theaters can still take advantage of nominations and a heightened public awareness to boost grosses,” Barker said. “Every one of us with pictures still in theaters can take advantage of that.”

Actor category nominations also could give some juice to A Single Man, The Last Station, and Nine. But all of those studios will be frugal.

Funny how Oscar cmpaign moolah covers travel and stylists for nominees stumping on TV shows. But, this year, there’s a talk show drought. The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien is in repeats. And The Jay Leno Show on Tuesday goes off the air. But his redo of The Tonight Show doesn’t return until March 1st. The Winter Olympics will be broadcast on NBC from Feb 12th through February 28th so that leaves only CBS and ABC for late night Oscar lobbying. Or the wasteland of daytime talk.

This is going to place even more importance on those rounds of meet-and-greet parties which are routinely thrown in LA and NY for the Academy Award contenders to chat with Oscar voters.

In most cases of Oscar overspending, the P&A placated talent but wasn’t recouped at the box office. I recall fondly how, in his Hollywood memoir, ex-mogul Mike Medavoy disected the futility of chasing an Oscar for his studio’s Bugsy after bowing to pressure from Warren Beatty. The film had beaten The Silence of the Lambs at the Golden Globes and received 10 Oscar nominations. So Medavoy doubled the film’s P&A budget, and the extra $25 million was almost precisely the sum that the picture’s bottom line lost. Concluded Medavoy: “We would have done fine with the money if we hadn’t spent $50 million chasing a gross that we couldn’t possibly achieve and an Oscar we didn’t get.”