The run-up to the Oscars used to be a time for reflection – not any more

Harvey Weinstein re-invented the art of Academy Award marketing, and it took balls. Maybe he learned something from Dino De Laurentiis
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The Independent Culture

Monday was the first warm day in California this spring. The result was rolling black-outs across the state: as air-conditioning came on, so California hit the bottom of the energy barrel. Steve Martin, the choice to host this year's Academy Awards Ceremony, may be asking for a little television-pooling in Oscar's home state.

Monday was the first warm day in California this spring. The result was rolling black-outs across the state: as air-conditioning came on, so California hit the bottom of the energy barrel. Steve Martin, the choice to host this year's Academy Awards Ceremony, may be asking for a little television-pooling in Oscar's home state.

The ironies don't stop there. In the run-up to this year's awards, several studios were rebuked for breaking the Academy's campaign rules – as if America had the faintest notion of honouring such schemes any more. Then there are the screenwriters who may miss the show in their rush to finish three or four scripts before the Writers Guild strike (1 May). On few Oscar nights will the gulf between raw commerce and artistic dignity seem wider. With the writers now emotionally locked into strike, and the actors set to follow a few weeks later, the claims for show business camaraderie may sound hollow this year. In fact, it's clearer than ever that the Oscar season (from 1 January until a month after the Oscars) has become a vital way of re-defining what used to be the deadest time of year. In the winter, between Christmas and baseball, America was once given over by Hollywood to deep snows, college basketball, alcohol and depression.

It was a precious, quiet time, the hush broken only by the occasional crack of a suicide's gun. But Hollywood has seen a way to make winter glitzy with anticipation. Newspapers survive the year on the advertising. Talk shows entertain the candidates, and other awards – the Golden Globes, the Writers and the Actors Guilds' awards – are pumped up into TV programmes. There are even rumblings that the British awards could get noticed. If only they lost that silly name, the Baftas. (Actually – and I give this to them for free – "the Dianas" would do it, and would probably make it all the way to American television.)

This year is more intensely fought than most because the five films nominated for Best Picture – Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic and Chocolat – have all done well enough at the box office to attract energetic promotion. Well, that's not quite true: any audience knows that Chocolat is an insipid concoction, but with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp as winsome figureheads, and with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax behind it, it has been built up to the nutritional value of cocoa.

Harvey Weinstein has changed the Oscar season more than anyone – it cannot be long now before he's an on-stage presence on Oscar night, taking away the Irving Thalberg award (a lifetime achievement gong given to "creative producers", and for which no campaign is required). Whatever one thinks of Mr Weinstein (and he does really surpass thought), he is a brilliant marketer of "outsider" films that go all the way for Oscar. His triumphs, so far, are The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love. He won't win with Chocolat, but it is one of his coups to have got the film nominated, and to huff and puff its American gross up over $50m.

I spoke of rule-bending earlier. Thus far it has been limited to minor things – DreamWorks used the image of Oscar in some ads for Gladiator (Oscar has a Roman look, doesn't he?) and Sony Classics sent out DVDs of Crouching Tiger as well as video cassettes. If those are judged as infractions, you may wonder whether such delicacy doesn't conceal grosser invasions elsewhere... Then you might be tempted by the rumour that Steven Spielberg himself called the churlish Russell Crowe into his office to tell him that not giving a flying f--k wasn't the Hollywood way; that he should shave, be polite, get out there and work for their picture. You don't have to believe that, but Mr Crowe has been doing the round of public appearances and treating the press as if they were Meg Ryan. Make up your own mind.

The amused response is the only safe one. Crowe may get his Oscar and carry Gladiator to Best Picture. Julia Roberts is a certainty – all she has to do is stop acting amazed about it. And Ang Lee could win Best Director: Crouching Tiger, in Mandarin, is about to go over $100m at the American box office. It's the best evidence I've seen that the public is still alive, let alone awake.

Amid such assertions of profit, and with the abyss of strikes ahead, it is a moment for nerves like brass balls in Hollywood. And that put me in mind of this year's Thalberg winner, Dino De Laurentiis. Dino is 81, the son of a Naples pasta-maker, and such a titan of the movie business that people like Harvey Weinstein probably send him 20 slaves and 10 stallions every birthday. Yes, he is Italian; and yes, he has endured cruel stories about drawing some of his support from the Mafia. Make up your own mind. He has also been involved as the producer, co-producer, or angry don't-forget-Dino figure on La Strada; Nights of Cabiria; Barabbas; Waterloo; Serpico; Death Wish; Mandingo; the re-make of King Kong; Ragtime; Conan the Barbarian; Blue Velvet; and even Hannibal.

There are people who will tell you that Dino is a magnificent, cheerful demon of vulgarity, charm and cheek. And there are those who say that doesn't quite get him. Richard Fleischer, the American director of Barabbas, once said that "The impact of meeting him [Dino] for the first time is something akin to sticking your finger into an electric light socket." He also told the story of how Dino reduced a script conference on Barabbas to mirth when he improved the crucifixion scene (written by Christopher Fry) by having Barabbas cry out, "Hey, God, what the fuck is going on?" It was Dino's practice over the years to keep a bronze statue of his trademark – a rampant lion – in his outer office. Anyone going in to see Dino was urged to give the balls on Leo a good-luck stroke. In time, it was said, those balls grew larger, shinier, and the lion's tail stood more boldly erect. Until... Well, there are limits to what a Sunday paper can print. .

I will only add this as a testament to Dino, his ability to be wrong occasionally, and his power of recovery. Long ago, Dino had the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon, read to him. He bought the book, after Warners let it go. The eventual movie, Manhunter, was a commercial failure. So Dino, who owned the rights on Harris's future Lecter books, let The Silence of the Lambs go to Orion. You know what happened to that. Dino was seething. When Hannibal came along, he snapped it up for $9m (the most ever paid for a novel). He then survived a tangle of business complications and Jodie Foster's defection. He got the picture made. He stayed in charge of it all, and bingo – Hannibal is likely to gross $400m all over the world. And because he is a generous man to his colleagues, Dino probably won't pocket more than $50m. So polish his balls if you ever pass the lion.

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