Of course the Oscars are about celebrating the best film work of the year, but it's not all Armani and air kisses. The race for the gold is a lot like the race for the White House: winning requires strategy, stamina and a sixth sense for appealing to voters. So as the nominees charm the press and press the flesh in the final weeks before the Academy Awards on Feb. 25, NEWSWEEK asked some of the smartest Hollywood campaign managers (several anonymous because they want to eat lunch in this town again) to break down the rules of engagement.
1 Sell Your Story: Are you the new kid in a star turn or the veteran actor in a tour de force? Is this your comeback? Are you a symbol? Academy members consider more than just the acting. "Did Halle Berry really give a better performance in 'Monster's Ball' than Sissy Spacek did in 'In the Bedroom'?" says one strategist who has crafted successful Oscar campaigns. "No. But Halle [as the first black woman to win a best-actress Oscar] was a better story."
2 Don't Peak Too Early: The key to winning is managing the pace of your campaign. "I don't need to be in first place on Oct. 1," says one publicist. "I don't even need to be in first place on Oscar night. I need to be in first place the week-end that voters get their ballots." That would be right about now. Most Academy members had their ballots by Feb. 4, and although the polls don't close until Feb. 20, it's assumed that most members vote in the first week. The best strategists time their clients' appeal to peak at this exact moment. Hilary Swank's campaigns for "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby" had an advantage because her films were released late in the year, so in February she felt like a fresh contender.
3 Shyness Is for Losers: One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that campaigning is beneath an actor's dignity. Glad-handing matters. There are exceptions: Sean Penn never campaigned and still won. Judi Dench seldom works a room. But there are far more examples of actors who won, in part, because they showed the Academy how much they prized it. Adrien Brody stunned everyone (including himself) when he beat out Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine and Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor. But Brody had worked tirelessly to promote "The Pianist," and had probably met every member of the Academy before Oscar night. "At the time he was unknown, so we had him go everywhere," says Oscar consultant Michele Robertson. Several experts think that Ryan Gosling is playing it too cool this year. "Ryan could win, but he needs to act like he wants it," says one publicist. "No one wants to vote for the guy who's like, 'Oh, I don't want to be famous'."
4 But Don't Look Desperate: The other danger is shaking too many hands and doing too many events. "You don't want to seem like you're flogging it," says Robertson. "The tide starts to shift, and people start to get a little sick of you." This is especially true if you become the front runner and start picking up a lot of the early awards. It's best to pull back to avoid overexposure. Julia Roberts kept a low profile during her Oscar campaign for "Erin Brockovich," so the few events she attended got a lot of attention. "A little Julia goes a long way," says a veteran Oscar strategist. "She shows up at one premiere and then there are pictures of her circulating forever. She was smart." Martin Scorsese finally learned that lesson. He's been much less visible for "The Departed" than he was campaigning for "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator." He seemed a little desperate to win back then--he's lost the directing award five times--but now looks like a gracious icon. Of course, he still can't catch a break. "Now that he's not showing up anywhere," jokes one publicist, "it's even more obvious that he wants it."
5 Avoid the Media Vultures: Early praise from critics and a few high-profile interviews put you on the map and show voters that you're a serious contender. But after that, it's best to just say no. As Oscar season heats up, every local TV station and low-circulation magazine wants a piece of you--Robertson calls this "bake-sale stuff." Indulge in it, and it can make you seem a little, well, easy. "If people see you everywhere, they don't feel they need to go to a theater to experience you," says Troy Nankin, who has worked with Swank since "Boys Don't Cry." "I'm trying to build a career here, not just win an Oscar." Not that winning an Oscar hurts, even if you have to look cheap to get it.