HOLLYWOOD -- The candidates crisscross the country on tight schedules, pressing the flesh, sitting down for interviews or conducting question-and-answer sessions in packed auditoriums.
They appear on TV with Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, Charlie Rose and Rosie O'Donnell, or banter with Jay Leno and David Letterman.
They're backed by massive doses of advertising on television, radio and in newspapers and magazines.
Politicians stumping for votes during the presidential primaries? Not by a long shot. These "candidates" are movie actors and directors who are in search of something almost as elusive as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- a golden statuette named Oscar.
The date that is important to these candidates isn't a snowy Tuesday in New Hampshire or a Super Tuesday. This year, Hollywood's main event is Feb. 13 in sun-splashed Beverly Hills, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences releases this year's list of Academy Award nominations.
At stake is not only a chance to make history with an award-winning film or performance, but a potential gold mine in box office that winning an Oscar can give a film, both in ticket sales after the award and later in the video and DVD market.
Nowhere is Oscar campaigning more intense today than in the world of art house films, where small movies such as "Billy Elliot," "Before Night Falls," "Pollock," "The House of Mirth," "Sunshine," "Dancer in the Dark," "Malena," "Requiem for a Dream" and "You Can Count on Me" are all vying for the spotlight against myriad major studio releases.
The race for best actor and actress is just as intense, especially when lesser-known actors in independent films must compete against megastars such as Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
Willem Dafoe, whose portrayal of an actor and real-life Dracula in the art house release, "Shadow of the Vampire," is creating early Oscar buzz, said the world of Oscar campaigning has changed significantly since he was nominated for best supporting actor in Oliver Stone's 1986 Vietnam War drama, "Platoon."
"I found out that I got nominated when my son's baby sitter called me up," he said. "I wasn't even aware that the nominations were being announced."
Now studios flood academy voters with videotapes and DVDs . They not only blanket Hollywood's two trade publications -- Variety and the Hollywood Reporter -- with expensive promotional ads, but magazines and newspapers as well.
And they enlist actors and directors to go on trips that resemble whistle-stop tours. Such campaigns sell tickets, of course, but the real targets are the 5,600 academy members whose votes will be announced March 25 at the Academy Awards ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
A few months ago, few Americans had ever heard of Javier Bardem. Now, the handsome Spaniard, who portrays the late Cuban novelist-poet Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls," seems to be everywhere.
The heat surrounding Bardem began when he won best actor awards at this year's Venice International Film Festival and from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics, and then exploded when he became a Golden Globe nominee for best actor in a drama alongside Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Douglas and Russell Crowe.
Last year, Bardem couldn't buy his way onto American television. Now, his handlers have booked him on Rosie O'Donnell, "The CBS Early Show," NBC's weekend "Today" and Charlie Rose.
These campaigns, which can cost millions of dollars, are driven by a number of factors besides increased box office. First, the studios believe that by heavily publicizing a film, Oscar voters will decide that this is a movie they can't afford to pass up. At the same time, the studios often feel compelled to mount these campaigns so they can maintain good relationships with A-list actors and directors, who jealously watch rival campaigns conducted on behalf of their peers.
The academy decided to impose guidelines on Oscar campaigns in the mid-1990s after Columbia Pictures sent academy members tapes of nine of its 1993 releases in an expensive black lacquered box.
The following year, other studios jumped on the packaging bandwagon. That's when the academy adopted strict guidelines on what mailings can look like. The guidelines also included a ban on mounting organized telephone campaigns on behalf of a film and prohibitions against hosting receptions, dinners or other events for a film and inviting academy members.
Despite these restrictions, Hollywood is witnessing Oscar campaigns that, in many ways, resemble runs for the White House.
When the academy mailed out its nominating ballots in January, the major studios and independents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars taking out double-page and full-page advertising in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times touting various year-end awards that their films had received.
Even small films such as "Pollock" and "Malena" had full-page ads.
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