Harvey, Wallbanger

Knockout: Miramax's Gangs of New York is poised to flatten the competition.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

Yes, now that it’s oscar season, things are looking up for Harvey Weinstein. Nobody does it better. Last week, Miramax nabbed an amazing 31 Oscar nominations, 40 if you count its financial stake in Paramount’s The Hours. (United Artists has the record, with 45 nods in 1940.) Miramax has earned thirteen Best Picture nominations in eleven years. And right now Chicago, which scored thirteen nominations—the most ever for a musical—looks unstoppable. The Miramax juggernaut is so formidable in part because it is so relentless. Harvey & Co. never stop looking for angles; they put their studio brethren to shame.

Is Gangs of New York too violent? Surround Martin Scorsese at a Women in Film lunch at Spago with Oscar nominees Diane Ladd, Sharon Stone, Winona Ryder, and Juliette Lewis. Is Scorsese too much of a Hollywood outsider? Bring him to L.A. and have producer Irwin Winkler (New York, New York) throw him a Golden Globes party full of local writers and directors. Is Scorsese producing a blues concert at Radio City Music Hall? Make sure his name is plastered across the marquee. Are actors protesting that they can’t use their sag membership cards to get into movies for free? Take over the Beverly Hills Music Hall, book Chicago and Gangs, and welcome all card-carrying members.

“This is a cyclical industry with up and down years,” Weinstein said last week. “This is once-in-a-lifetime year—it won’t happen again.”

Obviously, Miramax spent more heavily on its two front-runners, Chicago and Gangs, than on its second-tier contenders, Frida and The Quiet American. Mexican charmer Salma Hayek and wily veteran Michael Caine personally pushed their campaigns the extra mile to land their respective nominations. Hayek was also the beneficiary of another studio’s blunder: Columbia Pictures mistakenly submitted Meryl Streep in the Best Actress category for the sag awards for Adaptation, so that she competed with herself in The Hours. (In contrast, for the Golden Globes and the Oscars, she was submitted in the Supporting Actress category and nailed the former.) In the end, Hayek won more votes and got the nomination—and the late-inning boost.

Streep was also reluctant to campaign very hard for her two movies, and complained about the amount she did do. Similarly, Hayek’s co-star, Alfred Molina, who wasn’t comfortable with pressing his cause, didn’t land a Supporting Actor slot. And without Caine’s pressure on Miramax to show The Quiet American at the Toronto Film Festival, it might not have been released at all.

It’s easy to suggest that money makes the world go round at Oscar time. But while you must be willing to plunk down millions to get to the Oscar table, it’s not just a matter of buying trade ads and mailing lists. Both the movie and the campaign have to be good. “You’re talking to people who know movies,” says Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard. “You have to show them the craft.”

Several studios followed the lure of Oscar gold and spent heavily to no avail. DreamWorks managed to secure six Oscar nominations for Road to Perdition, but this year’s holiday season wound up far too competitive for a summer release to stage a Best Picture comeback. (None of the five nominees opened before December 18.) Fox tried to gain some traction for Minority Report, which barely even scored in the technical categories—those slots went to the year’s highest grosser, Spider-Man. Warner Bros. might have landed a Supporting Actress slot for White Oleander’s Michelle Pfeiffer, but was tripped up by Chicago’s long coattails and Queen Latifah. Of all the Academy branches, the actors (who vote in the acting categories, as well as for Best Picture) are the most susceptible to hype and the now-constant flesh-pressing at Guild Q&A’s. “They’re dumber,” says one disgusted Oscar promoter.

Fresh from Denzel Washington’s Oscar win last year, Fox Searchlight was dazzled by the Oscar prospects for Washington’s directing debut, Antwone Fisher, after its stunning premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, losing sight of the need to get its core black niche audience into theaters. In fact, Fox flopped on two key fronts: selling it to moviegoers in general and promoting it to Academy voters. Washington didn’t tub-thump for it. Star Derek Luke was a rookie. When the Hollywood Foreign Press Association failed to deliver any Golden Globe mentions, the Antwone Fisher campaign was dead.

In less competitive years, it was possible for smaller companies to get critical attention so that Academy viewers would be moved to slip a cassette into their VCRs, even at the last possible minute, and vote for someone like Halle Berry. This year, a Monster’s Ball would have been impossible. Even studio movies with impeccable campaigns, like Adaptation and About Schmidt, got left out of the Best Picture race. (Neither had visual scope and scale; both had irony to spare; Adaptation had third-act issues, and Academy seniors may well have been spooked by Jack Nicholson as a retiree.)

Savvy campaigning landed Best Original Screenplay nominations for critics’ favorites Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her) and Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También). The smaller hopefuls never got into the race at all: Left by the wayside were United Artists’ Igby Goes Down and Nicholas Nickleby, Fox Searchlight’s One Hour Photo and The Good Girl, Lions Gate’s Max and Secretary, and Sony Pictures Classics’ Spider. “Any independent needed to have a strong critics’ film, with stars and a ton of prints and ads,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. “Without that, it couldn’t work.”

Harvey Weinstein and his staff still have to take their movies across the finish line. It’s one thing to get nominated, quite another to deliver a win. The advantage in that race goes to the movie with staying power and forward momentum—the movie that’s still building and hasn’t peaked—and the marketing team that doesn’t make any mistakes. Miramax could be facing a nasty backlash. “Harvey’s the only game in town,” says Variety Oscar analyst Pete Hammond. “There’s a lot of jealousy.” Indeed, the scale of Weinstein’s nomination success could backfire between now and March. Richard Gere, for example, who drew the short straw in the hot Best Actor category, may not have helped himself when he sang Weinstein’s praises at the Golden Globes.

And the negative campaigning has already begun: Screenwriter William Goldman’s anti–Gangs of New York essay in Variety was widely quoted. There are questions circulating about whether all of Chicago’s stars did their own dancing. After the balloting was closed, Good Morning America aired an interview with the woman The Pianist director Roman Polanski had sex with when she was a minor (leading to the statutory-rape charge that has made him a fugitive from American justice since 1978). Miramax, of course, has been known to do its share of mudslinging during Oscar prime time. “I’ve got my Teflon coat on,” says one competing publicist. “I don’t want to get in their firing range.”

Best picture is Chicago’s to lose. The movie is adored; the Academy looks likely to make it the first musical to win the Oscar since 1968’s Oliver! But several factors could turn against Chicago: Producer Marty Richards and director Rob Marshall are Broadway, not L.A. Despite its thirteen nominations, the movie won’t sweep all the major categories. (Last year, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring earned thirteen nominations and did not win.) And if the country goes to war, Chicago could suddenly look frivolous.

But which movie can catch Chicago? Not The Two Towers. This year, Paramount publicist David Horowitz fed a poison pill into the Hollywood food chain: Wait until next year. It did the job; there was little that New Line could do to combat The Two Towers’ middle-sequel status. Thus the movie eked out six nominations and a Best Picture slot, despite the universal sense that it was superior to the first installment of the trilogy. Another sign of weakness was the directors’ choice of Talk to Her’s Pedro Almodóvar over Peter Jackson, who did not campaign. And while it could win some technicals, LOTR lacks support from the 1,300-member acting branch, which represents 20 percent of the Academy.

While the prospect of a Best Picture face-off between Scott Rudin’s The Hours (a Paramount movie with Miramax funding) and Weinstein’s Gangs of New York would be delicious, neither film has the right stuff to threaten Chicago. Gangs may have to settle for wins for Daniel Day- Lewis (who isn’t an easy glad-hander) and Scorsese (who may have campaigned too much). And The Hours’ Nicole Kidman is a lock for Best Actress. Kidman is Hollywood’s Golden Girl. She has it all: range, class, style, chops, the sympathy factor from her breakup with Tom Cruise. (She even schlepped to Sweden to work with Lars Von Trier.) And don’t forget The Nose. Making herself over as a brainy British scribe with a fake beak (something Harvey Weinstein initially opposed) all but guarantees her that Oscar.

The only film that has a prayer of beating Chicago (which is well on its way to $100 million) is The Pianist, which also happens to be the only Best Picture contender without Weinstein’s fingerprints on it. (At Cannes, he hated The Pianist so much that he walked out.) Focus Features bought the Palme d’Or winner for $3 million. Able to use his summer cash cow, The Hulk, as leverage, Focus president James Schamus will make sure his parent company, Universal, injects plenty of juice into the campaign. He learned a few things as the producer-writer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and now has ex–Miramax marketing chief David Brooks on his team, eager to prove his mettle.

The Pianist has several other things going for it, as well. People perceive the film as the underdog that did not buy its way into the awards season. It got there on its own considerable merits. Many Academy members are as uncomfortable as Meryl Streep with the current frenzy of political-style Oscar promotion. Although Roman Polanski can’t campaign here, he has made great movies, among them Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and Tess. “Polanski is not a pariah,” says Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday. “When he left town, he was still embraced by all the bad boys.” (Polanski won’t promote the movie anyway, because he finds it unbearable to talk about his own Holocaust history.) And Oscar virgin Adrien Brody is widely admired for the suffering he endured for his performance. With the right handling, Focus could turn the movie’s weaknesses into strengths.

“It succeeds as drama, as history, and as personal expression from a major filmmaker,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. “It’s the best Holocaust movie ever made.”

Even Elizabeth Taylor, the quintessential Academy voter—over-the-hill, high-minded, and slightly daffy—took time out from defending Michael Jackson on Larry King Live to declare her Oscar favorite: The Pianist. Now that struck a chord.

Harvey, Wallbanger