- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2009

Just like their distant cousins, presidential campaigns, it seems that Oscar campaigns get started earlier and earlier each year. Though nominations won’t be announced until February — and the awards ceremony won’t take place until March — filmmakers are already pumping up their movies and performers for award-season consideration.

Unable to put together a massive marketing budget for an Oscar-season push, the makers of smaller films are turning to social-networking and grass-roots efforts to get the word out. One such people-powered campaign is Duncan Jones’ to secure a nomination for Sam Rockwell, the star of “Moon.”

Mr. Jones directed the indie feature, about a miner on the moon who awakens from an accident on the surface to find that he has a doppelganger. The mind-bending little picture is driven entirely by Mr. Rockwell’s performance, as he is the only actor on-screen for the vast majority of the film.

Heartened by the response the film received in limited release — during which word-of-mouth drove it to high per-screen averages — Mr. Jones turned to the grass roots to start the buzz for Mr. Rockwell as a possible Academy Awards nominee. The young filmmaker, son of rock icon David Bowie, took to Twitter to stir up interest while pitching the case to popular movie blogs such as /Film.com. Fans, meanwhile, created an online petition to raise awareness of Mr. Jones’ work.

The odds, however, are against Mr. Jones and Mr. Rockwell. Though the average cost of an Oscar campaign has dropped significantly — $5 million to $10 million today, rather than the $20 million lavished on “Gladiator” in 2001 — it’s still very expensive to target Oscar voters via the most direct route available: taking out advertisements in the trade magazines.

Variety and the Hollywood Reporter may have seen campaign ad revenue drop in recent years, but they remain the best vehicles for building awareness about a movie or an actor. The problem with bottom-up campaigns like the one for “Moon” is that the grass roots have no say in who gets picked for an Oscar nomination.

Think of a typical grass-roots political campaign: Rank-and-file volunteers can donate money to candidates, canvass door to door for them and, ultimately, vote for their preferred choice.

In the world of movies, things are a little more complicated.

Grass-roots campaigns can help bring an indie feature to a wider audience. Consider the recent push to get this year’s surprise hit, “Paranormal Activity,” in front of audiences. After being picked up by Paramount, the movie was thought to be headed straight to DVD.

But a string of impressive festival performances coupled with hundreds of thousands of people demanding that the film be brought to their town ensured a wider release. Audiences backed up the clamor for the horror film by supporting it theatrically, packing midnight screenings and bringing in a huge amount of money.

None of these direct, measurable actions are possible with a grass-roots Oscar campaign. The average person can’t vote for who will receive a nomination or which of the nominees will be winners; the average person can’t chat up a voting member because he doesn’t know any; the average person can’t send money to launch a print advertising campaign.

When an electorate is tightly restricted — as in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — people power is moot, even in the democratized age of the Internet.

In the film world, elite gatekeepers are arguably more important than ever before. Festivals remain the easiest way to start early buzz on a film, as success at Sundance and Cannes has done for this year’s “Precious.” But relying on getting a picture shown at these prestigious venues is akin to hoping for a miracle Powerball win to finance a print campaign in Variety: Of the 3,661 features submitted to Sundance in 2009, just 118 were screened.

Studio executives hold just as much power: They determine whose films will be distributed and which of those films will receive a push during the awards season.

A growing cadre of awards-season bloggers, including Sasha Stone at Awards Daily and Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, sometimes champion under-the-radar releases, but it’s unclear how much of an effect they have on the decision-makers wielding the real power.

As admirable as Mr. Jones’ work is — and as much as Mr. Rockwell might deserve an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance — we’re still a long way from people-powered Oscars.

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