Show me the money

Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan looked as if it had Sunday's Oscars in the can. That was until the brothers Weinstein put their money where the word-of-mouth is and backed Shakespeare in Love and Life is Beautiful with a $15m campaign. Now Hollywood is asking: have the men from Miramax bought their own acceptance speeches?

Just over two weeks ago, Sir Ian McKellen came off his repertory run as Prospero at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and took a plane to New York, where the mask of classical Shakespearean actor was hastily exchanged for that of multi-purpose global celebrity.

In short order, he appeared on ABC's Good Morning America, David Letterman's late-night chat programme and the Comedy Channel's Daily Show. Last week he flew to Los Angeles for a lunch being held at the Beverly Hilton hotel for Academy Award nominees and a further flurry of interviews, dinners, industry celebrations and assorted junkets. He even participated in an e-mail chat forum.

On Sunday, in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, he will at last find out if his extraordinary public relations efforts and endless patience in responding to repetitive, largely inane questions from the press have paid off in the form of a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Gods and Monsters, a small independent film about the last days of the British movie director James Whale.

"This is very time-consuming, I must say," he reflected, looking more bemused than pleased at his elevation into the movie-star stratosphere. "It took four weeks to make Gods and Monsters and here we are 18 months later still happily talking about it."

Sir Ian's experience is hardly exceptional. With Oscar season reaching its frenetic climax, the most prominent of the nominees are looking back and realising that their familiar professional activities - reading scripts, preparing new productions, acting and directing - have been set to one side for weeks, if not months, in favour of a relentless marketing campaign to promote their chances at Hollywood's grandest prize.

This is not something they necessarily do willingly, but it involves a strange sort of debt repayment to their producers. "It's part and parcel of what is expected of you as an actor these days," said Geoffrey Rush, a Best Actor winner two years ago for Shine and now up for Best Supporting Actor in Shakespeare in Love.

It is also part and parcel of how the main film studios see the race for the Oscars which, like everything else in Hollywood, has turned into a grand exercise in canny marketing. Instead of allowing the 5,500 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make up their minds in peace, the studios treat the Oscars rather as politicians might a presidential campaign. It's not ultimately the quality of the films that counts, although that is what is constantly touted; nor even the money they take in at the box office, although that is certainly a major motivating factor.

Ultimately, it's all about beating the other guy - and if that means frenetic advertising and even more frenetic attempts to "place" positive pieces in the media, if that means parading stars on endless chat shows until their capacity for platitudes drives them to distraction, so be it. The Academy may be independent in its decision-making, but Hollywood is a town notoriously sensitive to the buzz of the moment, and there is no better way to create a buzz than to scream the name of your film from the rooftops loudly and incessantly.

Nobody knows this better than Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the bulldog brothers from Brooklyn, whose production company Miramax has literally transformed the Oscars from a dowdy exercise in self-congratulation into a lobbying campaign more akin to a streetfight than a marketing campaign.

This is the company that did not so much push The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and Il Postino into the limelight as shove them bodily after no major studio wanted to touch them. The Weinsteins hunger for Oscars the way a bullfighter wants blood, and this year they have pushed Miramax's sledgehammer promotional tactics to new levels of intensity.

Back in July, the Academy Awards race seemed all but wrapped up: Steven Spielberg's audacious war drama Saving Private Ryan astonished the critics and soon shaped up as the year's box-office sensation too. Even though most of the year's serious films had yet to be released, it was a big spectacle, with a big-name director and a big, ambitious theme - just what the Academy adores.

That was before the Weinsteins entered the picture - stage left, as usual, with a low-budget period piece with a wordy, somewhat erudite script that seemed a million miles away from the big "event movies" so beloved by Hollywood. In other hands, Shakespeare in Love might have been restricted to a small if appreciative audience in the big cities and faded away everywhere else. But the Weinsteins had other ideas right from the start.

Heartened by the enthusiastic reviews when Shakespeare was first shown in early December, they embarked on a furious campaign of talking it up at every opportunity while deliberately holding it back in the cinemas. At first it opened just in New York and Los Angeles; then, as the buzz spread, expanded slowly to other large cities. Starting with the Golden Globes in January at which it picked up awards for Best Picture and Best Actress, the hype surrounding awards season went hand in hand with the ever-evolving marketing campaign for the film itself.

The more nominations and accolades it collected, the more people went to see it. And as its audience expanded, an ever bigger impression was made on various prize committees - an impression helped by the near-ubiquity of the film's stars (in particular, Gwyneth Paltrow and Geoffrey Rush) and screenwriters (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) on the talk-show circuit.

When Shakespeare in Love raked in 13 Oscar nominations on 9 February, that was the signal for the film to roar into high gear. More than half of the $70m (pounds 43m) it has earned in the United States have come since the nominations were announced - and that figure is likely to reach at least $100m if it wins Best Picture on Sunday.

The Weinsteins insist they have done nothing different from past campaigns. But others in the industry are not so sure - including DreamWorks, makers of Saving Private Ryan, who have dramatically whacked up their television advertising budget (they won't say by how much) to keep up with the frenzy.

In an industry notoriously jealous of success, plenty of senior executives see some kind of black art in Miramax's marketing strategy - a strategy that has garnered a record 23 Oscar nominations this year and has ensured a strong presence every year since the company plugged into the financial and distribution resources of its present parent, Disney, in 1993.

Rumours are rife about exactly how much the Weinstein brothers are spending to achieve such spectacular results - the figures cited reach $15m or even higher, compared with $4m spent on average by each of the (considerably richer) big studios. Some news reports have even suggested Miramax has tried surreptitiously to trash Saving Private Ryan - a suggestion that Harvey Weinstein has not only denied but threatened to challenge in court.

The cornerstone of Miramax's success is that nobody likes to say no to the Weinsteins. Since their early days working out of their one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, they have been quintessential hustlers whose predilection for high artistic standards goes hand in hand with the savvy of the street. Unlike other companies eaten up by the majors, Miramax has retained its personality and working practices almost intact since the Disney buy-out. "The atmosphere at Miramax is... like a mobile cardiology unit: there's a general sense of tension which is only broken up by moments of mania," says Tina Brown, the former New Yorker editor who is now starting up a new magazine, Talk, for the Weinsteins.

Everybody with Oscar ambitions has now been to the Miramax school of promotion. DreamWorks, for example, yanked Saving Private Ryan from distribution back in November before it had exhausted its first run and re-released it a few weeks ago to cash in, very successfully, on the Oscar hype. Everyone has their fancied stars and directors and writers running around giving interview after interview.

In the excitement of Oscar fever, it seems the content of the competing films is a nicety that hardly matters any more. After all, the smart money on the night won't be on Tom Hanks or even Tom Stoppard or Ian McKellen, it'll be on Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

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