LOS ANGELES — Walt Disney is in. This week the studio will break new ground by starting a campaign that boldly offers its “Wall-E” as a contender for the best picture Oscar, an honor never yet won by an animated film.
Warner Brothers is in, too. That studio recently telegraphed plans for a multifront Oscar campaign for its Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight” by sending awards voters a query about their preferred format for promotional DVDs.
Not to be outdone, Paramount may join the party. Along with Marvel Enterprises, it is weighing an Oscar push for “Iron Man” and its lead actor, Robert Downey Jr., even while promoting Mr. Downey as best supporting actor for his role in the DreamWorks comedy hit “Tropic Thunder.”
Welcome to the pop Oscars.
After years of giving plenty of running room to independent film companies or studio art house divisions that set the pace with critic-friendly but limited-audience films like last year’s “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” this year the major studios are pushing some of their biggest crowd-pleasers into the thick of the awards race.
Their approaching multimillion-dollar campaigns come at a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose 6,000-plus members award the Oscars, is planning to give its annual show a more commercially popular flavor. In part the academy’s producers will do that by including glimpses of the year’s box office favorites, whether or not they are nominated for prizes.
The shift is coming about partly because companies in the last year have either folded specialty divisions like Warner Independent Films, which in 2006 had a best picture nominee in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” or downsized them, as Paramount did with Paramount Vantage, which in 2007 had a nominee in “Babel.”
Shrinkage in the small-film business has left more room for big studios to play the Oscar game. Awaiting awards pushes are films like Universal’s “Frost/Nixon,” directed by Ron Howard; Paramount’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a David Fincher film starring Brad Pitt; and 20th Century Fox’s “Australia,” a Baz Luhrmann epic starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.
(“Australia,” still unseen by critics, does not arrive until Nov. 26 but was screened in unfinished form for Oprah Winfrey, who is expected to feature it with star interviews on her show next week, kicking off the studio’s campaign.)
At the same time Hollywood’s blockbusters, rich in effects and increasingly complex in their themes, appear to have become more award-worthy of late.
“Wall-E,” from Disney’s Pixar unit, emerged as a darling of the critics for its adult sensibility, in addition to its heavily detailed computer animation. The film, the story of a lovesick robot, tackles a serious topic (environmentalism) while taking huge risks (for instance, a 45-minute stretch with nearly no dialogue).
As early as midsummer Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal’s film critic, was arguing that “Wall-E” should be considered for best picture. “The time to start the drumbeat is now,” he wrote in a July 12 essay, noting the extreme difficulty animated films, while hugely popular, have faced in vying for the most prestigious Oscar. Only one, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 1991, has ever been nominated for best picture.
“If we didn’t do it, I don’t think we’d be giving the movie its due,” Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said of the decision to promote “Wall-E” for the top prize, even if that complicates the movie’s simultaneous bid for the more easily won award as best animated feature. One problem is a presumed tendency to split votes. Academy members can vote for a film in both the best picture and best animated feature categories. But they may not be inclined to do that or even know that the rules permit it.
In the past films more appealing than self-consciously artistic were routinely included in the Oscar mix. “Ghost,” the No. 1 movie at the box office in 1990, with $506 million in worldwide ticket sales, won five nominations, including one for best picture. “There was much less campaigning back then, and the academy tended to go more with what moved them emotionally, even if it was a big commercial hit,” said Lisa Weinstein, a producer of “Ghost.”
The last runaway hit to win a best picture Oscar was “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. In the years since the prize has gone to “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men” — the combined domestic box office sales for which fell short of the $377 million taken in by “The Return of the King.”
The drift away from audience-oriented contenders has precipitated a sharp drop in viewers for the annual Oscar show. Last year’s program, with Jon Stewart as host, was the least watched on record, with about 32 million viewers in the United States. The highest rating was 55.3 million in 1998, when the immensely popular “Titanic” won the big prize.
Ultimately, of course, the academy’s voting members will decide whether the year’s more popular and mainstream offerings make the cut. They will have plenty of artier options, including “Rachel Getting Married,” Jonathan Demme’s intricate look at a family coping with a drug-addicted daughter played by Anne Hathaway, and “Revolutionary Road,” a period romance directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. “Slumdog Millionaire,” from the director Danny Boyle, and “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant with Sean Penn in the lead role, are also in the running — all with backing from studio specialty divisions.
Studio Oscar campaigners are largely reluctant to discuss their reasoning and strategies publicly for fear of overreaching with the academy’s finicky voters. However, several noted a belief that audiences — weary of economic crisis and political strife — are ready for a dose of fun from the entertainment industry.
“People like to vote for winners, and this year there are box office winners that also exhibit incredible craft,” said Amanda Lundberg, a partner at the New York publicity firm 42 West, an Oscar campaign powerhouse.
In that spirit, Disney will open its “Wall-E” campaign with something of a wink, by taking an advertisement that transforms the logo of a famous industry trade paper to read “Variet-E.” Warner’s campaign for “The Dark Knight” will get a boost from both a Dec. 9 DVD release and an expected rerelease, on both standard and Imax screens, as the awards season peaks in January.
If, as expected, “Iron Man” comes into the awards mix, that will be partly because Paramount recently moved a more conventional prospect, a drama called “The Soloist,” into next year and out of contention. That film, which stars Mr. Downey alongside Jamie Foxx, had promised to complicate the studio’s life at a time when it saw awards potential for the currently very hot Mr. Downey in three pictures at once.
Meanwhile, those who create the Oscar ceremony — to be shown on Feb. 22 on ABC — are determined this time around to connect with the people, and lots of them.
The academy has lifted a 50-year ban on commercials for coming movies during the Oscar telecast in the hope of creating more of a feeling of “event” television for movie fans by including more splashy ads. Organizers (and ABC’s advertising sales staff) are hoping to take a page from the Super Bowl, at which movie studios have often shown exclusive footage of big-budget summer movies to start generating fan interest.
And there will most certainly be superheroes and villains present on Oscar night, whether or not Mr. Downey receives a nomination for his role as Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” or Heath Ledger is nominated for his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
“Not only should the Oscar show celebrate excellence in the movies of the year; we believe it should also celebrate the movies,” said Laurence Mark, the producer of the next ceremony, sounding what has become a theme for the year.
“We just need to figure out a way that is appropriate to do that.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:Correction: October 29, 2008
An article on Tuesday about efforts by major Hollywood studios to promote their movies for Academy Awards misstated the release date of