NEW YORK – As next week's Oscar announcements approach, the list of nominees seems like a foregone conclusion, with Chicago and The Hours, Nicholson and Kidman, and Rob Marshall and Martin Scorsese as shoo-ins.
But behind the scenes, there have been some outlandish bids made in a hopeful -- and somewhat desperate -- attempt by studios to appease stars and snag a coveted golden statuette.
It's all part of the mad campaigning that goes on during awards season, since the winning movies, actors and filmmakers will reap megabucks and wind up on Hollywood's Most-Wanted list.
"When Hollywood gives out awards, it's about hugging famous people, telling who's in, who's out, who's come of age and who's being welcomed to the pantheon," said Tom O'Neil, host of the award prediction Web site GoldDerby.com.
But there have been some laughable bids. Among the "Are you kidding me?" suggestions: Matthew Lillard for Best Actor in Warner Brothers' Scooby-Doo; Disney's dismal cartoon movie Treasure Planet for Best Animated Film; and Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock for Best Actor/Actress in the sappy romantic comedy, Two Weeks Notice.
"Sometimes the studio feels obliged to stroke a star, so they have to follow through even though a film has been skewered," said O'Neil.
Many stars even have clauses in their contracts requiring that expensive "For Your Consideration" ads be taken out. The full-page ads, which appear in entertainment trade papers, can cost close to $50,000 for a prime spot.
"Overall, Hollywood will spend $75 million this year to win a statuette that costs $400 to manufacture," O'Neil said. "If that's not preposterous, I don't know what is."
O'Neil said the Matthew Lillard/Best Actor suggestion was "pretty ridiculous" and called the bids for the Two Weeks Notice stars "a real stretch."
As for Treasure Planet, he said, "Knowing there were so few animated films, Disney is just pushing it anyway, campaigning relentlessly even though it would never have a chance in a wide open field."
Italian actor Roberto Benigni was another panned "Best Actor" suggestion for his role as Pinocchio in the Italian film of the same name. Many say the problem was not the film -- or Benigni -- but its translation for American audiences.
Silly bids aside, a tightening of rules in the early 1990s has curbed some blatant wooing by studios, according to one Academy executive. That's when the Academy increased its number of rules from two to 15 and began prohibiting special receptions, dinners, luncheons and gifts for its members.
"These guidelines were put in place to tell the community and the public at large that the Oscars are not about campaigns or trade ads but about the work," said Academy Executive Administrator Ric Robertson.
Robertson remembers some of the bolder Oscar nomination bids before the rules were implemented. One company sent out a popcorn tub with a tape of a "For Your Consideration" song inside a portable Walkman-style stereo.
"From our perspective, that's a gift," said Robertson. "The board stepped up and said, 'We've got to try to address this.'"
The Academy still allows movie studios to send out films on DVD or videotape, songs or soundtracks on CD and information about screenings.
"The studios' big focus, and rightfully so, is to get members to see the films," Robertson said. "They're smart enough to know they're not going to sway votes by a clever ad campaign or other activities."
But are they?
When it beefed up its guidelines, the Academy had to regulate everything from film or song packaging to buffets at screenings (which aren't allowed).
But since many of the Academy members also belong to other industry guilds, a good number will be exposed to the celebrity receptions and lavish publicity ploys those organizations allow.
"There is some degree of overlap," Robertson said. "That's a way to get around the rule. We haven't figured out a way to address that."
O'Neil maintains that because of the overlap, Academy members are susceptible to schmoozing. As evidence, he pointed to The Hours, which has received mixed reviews from audiences but is considered a critical favorite likely to land Nicole Kidman a Best Actress statuette.
"The Hours is probably the best example of how studios can bamboozle moviegoers and Oscar voters and Globe voters into voting for a movie that is really, really awful," he said.