Why the Oscar Belongs to Halle


By Ronald Grover You know Oscar season is in full swing when Hollywood studios start accusing each other of waging nasty campaigns in pursuit of those 13.5-inch gold statues.

This year, the mud slinging has supposedly been done by Fox (Moulin Rouge), at the expense of the presumed front-runner Universal's A Beautiful Mind. Or maybe the prize goes to Miramax, which has high hopes for In the Bedroom. The charge? That Ron Howard, who directed A Beautiful Mind for Universal, left out any references to John Nash's homosexual behavior, antisemitism, or illegitimate child. Nash is the Nobel-prize winning mathematician whose life the movie chronicles.

It's hard to get all worked up over that particular spat -- which both Fox and Miramax deny any involvement in. But lest you think the Academy Awards is all about rewarding artistry, the stars and their managers know there's more gold to be had after lugging home that 8.5-pound Oscar. That's why everyone pulls out their big marketing guns even before the nominations are announced.

Consider the case of the ultragorgeous Halle Berry, a Best Actress nominee for her brilliant performance in Monster's Ball. Berry has had two armies on her side -- one fanning out from the offices of her longtime manager Vincent Cirrincione, the other from Lion's Gate, the independent film studio that produced and distributed Monster's Ball. Their campaigns have been clean, aboveboard, and honest.

UNDER THE WIRE. But make no mistake, the Oscar is a marketing tool -- and they know it. "From the beginning, we figured that this was a film that would be marketed for its award potential, and Halle's award potential," says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lion's Gate Film Releasing.

The film was released on Dec. 26, 2001, on seven screens in New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for the awards. But it opened wider -- to 324 theaters -- in early February, just before nomination ballots were due in hopes that a blizzard of favorable reviews would sway voters. Lion's Gate also pushed hard to have the film screened at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival that same weekend. And it quickly blitzed the trade papers as well as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times with ads after Berry was awarded the Silver Bear in Berlin for her performance.

Lion's Gate also helped build buzz by renting a theater in Brentwood, Calif., for two days, showing the film for eight hours each day to make sure no voter missed it. The target then was the 200-plus nominating voters for the Screen Actors Guild. SAG's nominations and award ceremony precede the Oscars. Meanwhile, Cirrincione was setting up nonstop interviews for his client, including some from a rented soundstage in England, where Barry was filming the coming James Bond Film, Die Another Day.

"AN INTERNATIONAL STAR." Like a well-oiled machine, it all worked. Berry was nominated for Best Actress by SAG a month before the Academy ballots were due and won the SAG prize just as final Oscar ballots were being mailed in. "You hope it is like every election, that most of the folks wait until the end to mail in their ballots," says Cirrincione.

If Berry takes home the award on Mar. 24, it could easily be worth $5 million or more each time the 33-year old actress steps in front of a movie camera. "Her marketability goes straight up," says Cirrincione. "It makes her an international star."

While Berry is hardly underpaid, by Hollywood standards she works cheaply. She earned $2.5 million for her last major film, playing the temptress in the John Travolta film Swordfish. She's getting slightly more than that to play alongside Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Compare that to what 29-year old Gwyneth Paltrow gets after having won the 1998 Oscar for her starring role in Shakespeare in Love -- $10 million. She banked only $750,000 for appearing in Shakespeare.

OTHER CONTENDERS. To join Paltrow in the post-Oscar gold mine, Berry first has to get by a pretty tight field. The Internet site Goldderby.com, which polls movie critics, has Berry neck-and-neck with In the Bedroom's Sissy Spacek, who won the 1980 Best Actress Award for Coal Miner's Daughter. A poll of Yahoo! users has Moulin Rouge star Nicole Kidman romping off with the prize. (The other nominees are Renee Zellweger, for Bridget Jones' Diary, and Judi Dench, for Iris.) Hollywood Stock Exchange has Berry as the favorite. For my money, Halle should win the prize. Alas, I don't have a vote.

"As far as I'm concerned, she has already won," says her manager Cirrincione. And, in fact, that may be true. A former Miss Ohio and the 1986 Miss USA runner-up, Berry is considered a top-flight actress. She won a Golden Globe in 1999 for her portrayal as the black actress Dorothy Dandridge in the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. She was in the blockbuster hit X-Men last year and will soon start work on the sequel. She took on the role in Monster's Ball - and cut her salary to $600,000 -- largely to prove that she's an actress as well as being beautiful.

She still has to prove she can open a movie on her own, or that she can command the megabuck salary that comes with a starring role for a major film. Cirrincione thinks that Berry faces an uphill battle, largely because she is an African-American woman. (Berry's father was African American, her mother Caucasian.) "I talked with the head of one independent studio, and he wasn't sure she could open a film," says Cirrincione. He concedes that Berry lacks the kind of international following that most film studios look for when marketing a film overseas.

RIVETING. Things are going her way, however. All the marketing efforts and the Oscar nomination have raised her profile greatly. A win would take her to the next level. Berry's heritage might even help in this era when political correctness seems to be in vogue. Two African-American actors, Will Smith and Denzel Washington, are among the Best Actor nominees.

Then again, maybe Berry will simply get the Oscar because of her riveting performance. And if her marketing team can help her cash in on Oscar's riches, well, she deserves that too. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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