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Lincoln vs Argo and the big-budget blitz: how Hollywood is throwing millions at race for Best Picture Oscar

Studios behind two leading contenders for Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony are both estimated to have spent around $10m on their campaigns

Their billboards tower over the streets of Hollywood, their broadcast spots clog the commercial breaks between primetime TV shows, and their print advertisements fill the pages of almost every Los Angeles-based publication.

In its hometown the Oscar race is unavoidable, and, just like last year’s US Presidential rivals, this year’s nominees for Best Picture are expected to contest the most expensive awards campaign in history.

The studios behind Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage drama Argo and Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic Lincoln, the two leading contenders for Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, are both estimated to have spent around $10m (£6.4m) on their campaigns. In 2010, The Hurt Locker beat Avatar to Best Picture after spending $5m, but this year’s race is close, and Warner Bros (Argo) and Disney (Lincoln) both have sizeable war chests.

Members of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, for example, were given four Lincoln-themed books – including a Civil War-era recipe book – ahead of the Critics’ Choice Awards, at which the film went on to win prizes for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Score. Universal sent the same set of voters an iPod shuffle containing the Les Misérables soundtrack.

Subscribers to industry journal The Hollywood Reporter recently received a free glossy, promo magazine for Silver Linings Playbook, as well as a “making of…” DVD. Elizabeth Gabler, the president of Fox 2000 Pictures, told the Los Angeles Times that her studio had made a “substantial” financial commitment to its awards campaign for Best Picture contender Life of Pi. “I know it’s as much as we’ve ever spent,” she said. The film’s director, Ang Lee, is one of the favourites for Best Director.

“The 2013 race was wide open for a long time,” said Jon Weisman, the awards editor for Variety, “whereas last year it boiled down to The Artist and The Descendants very quickly, and the year before that to The King’s Speech and The Social Network. That didn’t happen this year until the last few weeks. So perhaps more spending needed to be done to narrow the race.”

The beginning of the Oscar arms race can be traced to 1999, when producer Harvey Weinstein was said to have spent $15m on an advertising assault that brought him a Best Picture award for Shakespeare in Love, blowing away Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. This year Weinstein hopes to cause another upset with Silver Linings Playbook.

The spending may sound ludicrous, but a boost from the Academy can send a film’s box office soaring. Slumdog Millionaire had grossed $44m when it was nominated for Best Picture in 2009. After it won that Oscar (and seven others) it went on to earn $377m worldwide.

Much of the cost of an awards campaign goes on the lavish DVD packages sent to voters to persuade them to watch the films in contention. Then there’s the cost of transporting and accommodating the filmmakers as they perform promotional duties. Television and billboard advertisements can cost six figures. A full-page advert in The Hollywood Reporter costs around $25,000, but the cover of Variety can be up to $80,000.