Pete Hammond

EXCLUSIVE: Disney released its billion dollar-grossing Alice In Wonderland all the way back in March. Now, in a bid to bring Tim Burton’s 3D blockbuster into the awards conversation, Disney is planning a full court press. This 6th biggest grosser of all time will start an unusual four-day theatrical engagement Sunday aimed squarely at attracting Academy members and Hollywood guilds. A full-page Sunday newspaper ad will launch the 3D run at the Arclight Hollywood and AMC Santa Monica from October 18th to 21st. The run will be accompanied by an exhibit of Colleen Atwood’s costumes in the Arclight lobby. A major advertising campaign in the Industry’s awards-centric media also will be part of the equation to land Alice In Wonderland not just the expected technical nominations such as art direction, makeup, visual effects, and costumes but also Best Picture and Director recognition, a longer shot indeed according to current conventional wisdom of where the race is.

The film was produced by Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd, Richard Zanuck and Joe Roth. Zanuck and Roth are former studio heads who have shepherded many past nominees and winners, produced the Oscar show itself, and of course are longtime Academy voters. They explain to me this campaign launch isn’t about money: it’s about recognition. After all, there’s little financial upside at this point that would come from Oscar wins or nominations. “I think it would be terribly disappointing not to make the Top Ten,” Zanuck tells me. “We’re not just mercenary about that. You can’t make a billion dollar gross unless millions of people are satisfied with a picture. The whole point of the new rule of 10 Best Picture nominees was not to exclude the most popular pictures of the year such as The Dark Knight. It was like pooh-poohing the audience. There should be recognition that you don’t get that business unless there were a lot of repeats and broad-based appeal and true creative accomplishment. That was the point of that discussion.”

And the one-time moguls are cognizant of the fact that Alice, billion dollars or not, is coming from behind in terms of perception of the players in this year’s Best Picture race. Critical response was somewhat down the middle; along with admiring notices from USA Today and The Wall Street Journal among others, the film stands at just 51% fresh overall at Rotten Tomatoes (but a higher 61% when only top critics are counted). And Alice has also fallen down the rabbit’s hole of potential Best Pic contenders, at least according to almost any pundits list so far. “That’s what got us started,” Zanuck, an Oscar winner himself (Driving Miss Daisy) and Irving Thalberg recipient, tells me. “It isn’t making those lists and that’s troubling. I don’t know how accurate they are. These lists that we’re seeing haven’t taken into consideration the campaign we’re about to launch. It should bring us back to the forefront. I think the biggest obstacle is really being yesterday’s news in terms of Academy. Some of them don’t even remember we came out this year.”

Co-producer Roth also feels the March release date is a detriment in trying to get voters’ attention. “Disney has the challenge of reminding people. Things move so quickly now. In our world, 9 months feels like 9 years.” Best Picture nominations are rare for films that come out that early. In fact, Alice was released on March 5th, which was 2010′s Oscar weekend, an initial concern for the producers until the movie raked in $116 million over the 3 days and assuaged their fears.

Disney finds itself in the unusual position of having a slate of contenders in several categories this year that includes Toy Story 3, their other billion dollar grosser and a movie that, unlike Alice, has landed on most pundits’ lists of potential Best Picture nominees and maybe even winner. Roth says the studio is fully behind Alice even though this new regime didn’t initiate it. (It was a Dick Cook project.) “Disney seems to be passionate about it in meetings we’ve had that included Rich Ross. Look, they have two quality movies that grossed a billion each. They are both outsiders from a normal Academy standpoint but this [campaign] is certainly a way for Disney to remind people they are doing quality work.”

It goes unsaid that a big campaign obviously doesn’t hurt the ongoing relationship Disney has, and hopes to have, with Burton, including an upcoming animated feature film adaptation of his short, Frankenweenie, aiming for 2012. Burton has been nominated only once for an Oscar — in his capacity as co-director of the 2005 animated feature nominee Corpse Bride. His films have never before been welcomed into the Best Picture or Director races, although Sweeney Todd (2007) did win a Best Picture Comedy/Musical Golden Globe the year those awards were forced off the air due to the WGA strike. Zanuck, who has produced five Burton films to date, admits about the slight, “I find it odd. Because he’s one of the only auteurs left, one of the few ever. He won’t admit it , and we don’t talk about it, but I would be surprised if in some way in the back recesses of is mind he wouldn’t feel a little hurt and neglected.”

Analyzes Roth: “The Academy hasn’t been that open to Tim’s work which they probably find too idiosyncratic I’m guessing from the past. It’s good to remind people of the picture if what ultimately happens is that some individuals are lauded for the film.

Naturally, Zanuck believes Alice is the finest film of Burton’s career both technically and artistically, with praise also for the multi-Oscar winning technical team that include Atwood and legendary effects wizard Ken Ralston (Star Wars). “You could practically run it silent and people would understand it just as well. It’s just a visually stunning film,” he says.

Ask Zanuck and Roth who they think will win Best Picture for this most wide open awards season in years, and they don’t know either. “I haven’t seen all the movies that are coming yet,” Roth says, “but sitting here in mid-October we’re looking for a contender, right?”

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.