LOS ANGELES -- Giant coffee table books, iPod Shuffles, signed letters from directors, even "Lincoln" turkey roasting pans. That's just some of the largesse doled out by the studios to voters for awards presented earlier this season -- each with the potential to influence the outcome of Hollywood's most important awards, Sunday night's Oscars.
Such gifts are strictly forbidden by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But for studios, the stakes are high, and they've been creative in working around the rules to give their movies the best spotlight possible. A best picture win can boost a film's commercial appeal and solidify relations with big-name actors and directors.
This year, top Oscar contenders "Argo" from Warner Bros. and "Lincoln" from Disney pitted two deep-pocketed rivals against each other in what some say was an unprecedented level of Oscar campaigning. There was even some targeted sniping about the films' bending of historical facts.
Part of what's behind the seemingly unrestrained lobbying is that this year, an unusually large number of best picture nominees are also doing well at the box office, giving the studios dry powder for their campaigns.
Six of the nine contenders for the top Oscar have reaped $100 million or more in ticket sales domestically, and collectively they've earned $309 million since the nominations Jan. 10, according to Hollywood.com. This record-setting "Oscar bump" dwarfs the $111 million the nine best picture nominees made between the nominations and the awards ceremony last year. It also trumps the season that 2009's megahit "Avatar" was in the running, when 10 nominees brought in $204 million in bump.
That means there's plenty of reason for studios to keep spending -- even to the extent of papering the walls of the popular Beverly Hills restaurant Kate Mantilini with campaign posters, which conveniently tower over diners just a block from the motion picture academy itself.
"I have never seen such an assault in terms of stuff being sent to us," said Pete Hammond, a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which hosts the Critics Choice Awards, and a columnist for the Hollywood blog Deadline.com.
Hammond is one of several voters for the earlier awards where wins translate into momentum for Oscar hopefuls. They say their mailboxes were swamped with swag this year -- all of it an attempt to reach the 5,800 academy members who vote on the Oscars, albeit through indirect means.
From the campaign of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," members of the broadcast critics group say they received no less than four coffee table books, an intricately framed DVD for review purposes and even a hand-signed letter from Spielberg himself, thanking them for recognizing the film with so many nominations. Some awards voters also received "Lincoln" turkey roasting pans, according to an industry insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The broadcast critics also received an iPod Shuffle, which retails for $49, containing the soundtrack to Universal Pictures' "Les Miserables," which is up for music and sound mixing awards.
Several voters said this level of giveaway was unusual, but then again, in recent times, well-funded major studios haven't been that involved.
In the last two years, the movie industry's top honor went to The Weinstein Co.'s "The Artist" and "The King's Speech." Previous to that, 2009's winner was "The Hurt Locker," whose backer Summit Entertainment was just starting to get its "Twilight" mojo and was yet to be flush with cash.
Before that it was Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire" and before that "No Country for Old Men" by Paramount Vantage -- both smaller arms of major studios that have smaller marketing budgets than their larger siblings.
This year, the majors are back in the game in a big way. In addition to Warner's "Argo" and Disney's "Lincoln," Sony Pictures is behind "Zero Dark Thirty," 20th Century Fox is backing "Life of Pi" and Universal is the force behind "Les Miserables."
While The Weinstein Co.'s "Silver Linings Playbook" is earning boffo business above $100 million in ticket sales following co-chairman Harvey Weinstein's familiar script of making the most of awards season, it appears that this year, the majors have studied up.
"Nobody ever did it besides Harvey, and now everybody's done it this year," said David Poland of MovieCityNews.com, which means more intense campaigning because there's more money to spend.
One look at the release pattern of "Zero Dark Thirty" and it's clear that Sony didn't want to repeat what happened to "The Hurt Locker," another Katherine Bigelow-directed war film that despite its best picture win, made just $19 million in theaters worldwide. Part of the problem with "Hurt" was that it came out in June and was all but gone from theaters by the time the Oscar nominations rolled around.
Instead, "ZDT" showed in just a handful of theaters in December to qualify for the 2012 Oscars, but burst onto 3,000 theaters the day after the nominations in January, capturing the top spot at the box office that weekend.
"We designed our release campaign to take advantage of key dates in the awards season," said Sony Pictures spokesman Steve Elzer. "With approximately $90 million in box office to date, the film has been a huge critical and commercial success and no matter how we do at the Oscar ceremony on Sunday, we couldn't be more pleased with the film's performance."
Starting small and then going wide after the nominations is the "Playbook" that The Weinstein Co. has followed for years, although company co-chairman Harvey Weinstein denies the pattern.
"There is no playbook, there is no campaigning," Weinstein said. "I have always said the most important thing is to get people to see the films and everything else is mostly fluff."
Even films at the tail end of their box-office run are pumping up the volume. "Argo," which came out in October, was heavily advertised by Warner Bros. ahead of the DVD release this Tuesday. The studio began selling digital downloads two weeks ahead of that. Fox followed a similar strategy for "Life of Pi."
"Because these films are so strong, all the companies are buying (ads)," said Michael Parker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, whose film "Amour" is also up for best picture.
Critic Anne Thompson of Indiewire said this year's extravagance is due to the fact that big studios have high hopes for their films. Amid her swag pile are "Wreck-It Ralph" plastic fists, a toy bow and arrow from "Brave," and a printed page of the John Williams score from "Lincoln."
"The factors here are a) the studios involved and b) big hit movies that had extra money," she said. "And the fact you have a close race between two big studio movies. They have reason to believe they have a chance to win."