Oscar Campaign Season Begins

Meryl Streep may very likely make history when Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow — but she's got nothing but scorn for the presidential-style campaigns into which studios pour millions pursuing the gold statuettes.

"It find it alarming that all the campaigning for Oscars is getting like a political campaign," said Streep, who is tied with Katharine Hepburn for most nominations (12) and is up again for Best Actress (The Hours), as well as Best Supporting Actress (Adaptation), nominations.

"It won't be long before they start paying for television commercials for Best Picture, Best Actor and all those things."

With a potential payoff of tens of millions of dollars if a movie is nominated, and hundreds of millions more for a Best Picture winner, studios have ample incentive to dig deep.

To woo the 5,700 members of the academy (as well as voters for the Golden Globes and a score of other awards leading up to Oscar night, March 24), studios take out expensive, multipage spreads in trade publications like Variety and bury voters in an endless supply of DVDs of films seeking nods.

There are elegant invitation-only screenings attended by the films' stars and directors - technically barred by academy rules, but perfectly legal if they're held under the auspices of one of the professional guilds or hosted by a third party unaffiliated by the film.

Only a handful of people know how much each Oscar campaign actually costs — published estimates for the 2000 Oscar winner Gladiator ranged as high as $20 million.

Some stars are more than willing to roll up their sleeves and hit the campaign trail.

"Nicole Kidman has been making more appearances this year in support of The Hours than probably any actress has ever done," Tony Angelotti, a longtime Oscar consultant who is representing Disney's animated films in this year's race, told The Post.

For Kidman, considered a front-runner for her performance as author Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a Best Actress win would bring her the rare perk enjoyed by past winners like Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.

The Saucy Aussie would get the power to green-light virtually any project she wants to appear in — as well as being able to command as much as $20 million a picture.

For The Hours, likely multiple nominations that include Best Picture could translate into $30 million in additional revenues in the six weeks between tomorrow and the awards, said Leonard Klady, a box-office analyst for the Movie City News Web site.

"It's absolutely crucial for a serious movie like The Hours to establish its credibility through Oscar nominations," he told The Post.

Last year, a grim, low-budget film called Monster's Ball saw its business spike a whopping 600 percent after star Halle Berry was nominated for an Oscar.

"A lot of people want to see all the movies and performances that were nominated," said Martin Grove, a box-office analyst for The Hollywood Reporter. "So you can get a substantial Oscar bounce, which is really helpful for low-profile pictures."

Chicago, which has been doing well in limited release, expanded from 600 to 1,800 theaters this weekend in anticipation of multiple nominations, a move experts predict will bring a windfall of an extra $40 million to $50 million between now and Oscar night.

Experts said a win for Chicago, widely regarded as the front-runner for Best Picture, could mean up to an additional $200 million over the next 18 months, when international box-office, video and TV sales are figured in.

"An Oscar-winning movie is a gold-plated annuity," Angelotti said. "It will generate extra income for decades on TV, on DVD, and probably in media that haven't even been invented yet."

Miramax has supported Gangs of New York with a string of expensive, two-page color ads in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times — something some critics say isn't remotely justified by the movie's modest $56 million gross after two months in wide release.

"Yes, there've been a lot of double-truck ads, but it's not as if we're going from one-page to two-page ads for academy purposes," said Rick Sands, the studio's chief operating officer.

"If you're competing against three or four new films each week, you need to maintain the perception of the movie to the consumer. There's a benefit to the academy [campaign] as well, but if we didn't think it was benefiting the box-office, we wouldn't do it."