The race for that most glittering of Hollywood's glittering prizes starts tomorrow when the Oscar nominees are announced.

Who will win? Will it be the best performance or the best hype that clinches the award? Cameron Docherty in Los Angeles provides an insight.

January has traditionally been a dead month in the film industry. Mediocre movies that had "potential blockbuster" written all over them in pre-production are quietly discarded into the winter wasteland to compete with snow storms and the Superbowl, freeing up the marketing maestros to concentrate their efforts on more serious fare: Oscar nominations.

Tomorrow, at the ungodly hour of 5am Pacific time, everyone in Hollywood, from studio execs and producers to actors, will be glued to CNN to discover the names of this year's Oscar nominees.

It's a lot like winning the Lottery: it can be a blessing or a burden. At best it can revitalise a career: take Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs; it can propel a virtual unknown into the limelight ( Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves); or it can send the box-office receipts through the roof (Dances with Wolves). "Whichever way you look at it," says one- time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, "you're better to have had it than not." But once nominated, how do you win? Is the quality of the performance enough? Hardly. The potential nominees - particularly the actors - go to extraordinary lengths to be in contention for that golden statue. Even publicity-shy stars such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro thrust themselves into the limelight.

"It's usually the producers and studio heads who put them up to it," says Roger Ebert, the respected film critic who feels that the voting process for the Academy Awards is flawed. "For an actor, the idea that a studio will spend lots of money to help them win an Oscar is too hard to resist. If it means jumping through hoops in return, they'll do whatever it takes to get that nomination."

Few match the Oscar ambition of John Wayne, the producer-director-star of Sixties film The Alamo. He bought ads touting his film for 43 consecutive days in the Hollywood trade papers. Wayne also sent out a 183-page press release depicting himself as "the George Washington of films, storming the celluloid heights for God and country". (Wayne's efforts earned the movie seven nominations. It won the Oscar for best sound.)

While more recent Oscar campaigns have continued to rely on heavy advertising and sending out video cassettes to the 4,500 Academy voters, The Color Purple nominee Margaret Avery was the first to deviate from the traditional approach in 1985 by having her ad written in the uneducated black dialect of her character: "I knows dat I been blessed ... Now I is up for one of the nominations fo' Best Supporting Actress."

Since then, however, the electioneering process has become even more, well, creative. "The studios all try to outdo each other," claims one Academy member. "In 1996 Grammercy Pictures sent out the Susan Sarandon movie, Dead Man Walking, in a wooden box. Did they think I would be swayed by that? It was a terrific film which stood out on its own. It didn't need a stupid marketing gimmick to enhance it."

Few Oscar gambits have been more imaginative than those employed by Miramax, the independent production company that gave us, among many others, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction. To promote 1989's My Left Foot, Miramax rigged up a customised, state-of-the-art theatre, where it held special screenings for disabled viewers. Each attendee was rewarded with a chocolate foot. (The picture got five nominations. It won Best Actor: Daniel Day- Lewis, and Best Supporting Actress: Brenda Fricker.)

Two years ago, when it looked as if the company would struggle to gain any nominations, it conjured up a masterful campaign for Il Postino, which became only the second foreign-language film to be nominated for Best Picture. "It was incredible," admits one high-powered producer begrudgingly. "They persuaded stars like Glenn Close and Jodie Foster to read the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's work at recitals all over town. Then, to cap it all, they put the recordings on a cassette and sent them out to Academy voters, with an accompanying book!" (The film won five nominations and became the highest grossing foreign film ever released in the United States.)

This year, Miramax hasn't been so imaginative, preferring to let the work of its best Oscar contenders - Matt Damon and Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Dame Judi Dench (Mrs Brown) and Helena Bonham-Carter (The Wings of the Dove) - speak for itself.

"In the past, Miramax has undoubtedly won nominations on the strength of its campaigns and not for the quality of performance," maintains Roger Ebert. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's simply a testament to their skills at marketing."

Unfortunately, the defining criteria for an Academy nomination is, and always will be, money. Big splashy ad campaigns, video cassettes, and press releases are the only ways to bring a performance to the attention of Academy voters. Inevitably some of the small movies are overlooked.

A case in point is Afterglow, for which the English actress Julie Christie is receiving rave reviews. The film's distributor, Sony Classics, did not send a video cassette out to Academy members, the only sure way of setting them to see a film, since most are simply too lazy to go to theatres to watch them.

While Christie's campaign for Best Actress has been low-cost, low-key and virtually non-existent, the studios have spent a fortune promoting the likes of Jim Carrey for Liar, Liar; Nicholas Cage for Con Air; John Travolta in Face/Off; Kirstie Alley in For Richer and Poorer; and Linda Fiorentino for Men in Black - all worthy efforts, yes, but hardly the type of work that garners an Academy Award nomination.

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