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‘Argo,’ ‘Lincoln,’ use big budgets to buy potential Oscar votes

Today is the deadline for all Academy Awards ballots, which means the most expensive Oscar campaigns ever are finally coming to a close.

It’s all over but the counting. The overriding question is – for the Best Picture Oscar, has “Lincoln” managed to “procure” enough votes to overcome the momentum “Argo” has built up over the last couple of months?

In “Lincoln,” the 13th Amendement came down to the very final moments and so too might this battle between two giant studios, Warner Brothers for “Argo” and Disney for “Lincoln.” Whichever way it comes out, it’s already historic – as the most expensive Oscar campaign ever.

The LA Times says each studio is pouring at least $10 million into their Oscar promotions, more than double what past campaigns have spent.

One of the reasons for the high costs – it’s considered an extremely tight race. “Lincoln” was the favorite going in. Then the underdog “Argo” surged past it with a lot of pre-Oscar award wins, and now “Lincoln” is fighting back hard to snag a come-from-behind win.

The other reason so much is being spent is that it happens to pit two studios with very deep pockets against each other. Recent Best Picture Oscars have gone to small independent productions – “The Artist,” “The Hurt Locker” – which didn’t have lot of money to throw around. Disney and Warner Brothers do, and they are.

How’s the money being spent? In the Los Angeles TV market, for instance, both films bought primetime 30 minute TV spots full of testimonials and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of the respective “masterpieces.” That set both studios back a hundred grand each.

Both studios have also swamped Hollywood’s trade papers with full page ads and cover treatments. (A single Variety cover reportedly costs upwards of $80,000.) And huge outdoor advertising on buildings, called “wallscaping,” is cropping up on more and more prime locales throughout Los Angeles. Those set each studio back $200,000 per building.

Add in all those high-end parties and receptions for the various nominees at swanky places like the Beverly Hills Hotel at another hundred grand a pop and you’re talking some real money.

Not to mention all the little perks doled out to the voters. As a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, I received four different books from the “Lincoln” backers (one a coffee table book on all the films of Steven Spielberg, another a collection of Civil War recipes) as well as a special DVD of the film couched in an inlaid numbered box. Spielberg even sent me a personally signed thank you note.

My “Argo” haul wasn’t quite so overflowing, but I did get a book and a DVD called “ARGO Declassified” about the real life events that inspired the Iranian hostage movie.

Both movies have former Presidents flacking for them – Bill Cinton introduced “Lincoln” at the Golden Globes and Jimmy Carter has been talking up “Argo” for months. (The latter especially makes sense: it was one of the few things that seemed to go right for him during his presidency.)

To be fair to “Argo” and “Lincoln” they’re not the only heavy campaigners, they’re just the heaviest. Best picture nominee “Silver Linings Playbook” also booked a half hour slot on local TV. 20th Century Fox says it’s never spent as much promoting a film as it has for “Life of Pi,” and Universal sent every BFCA (Broadcast Film Critics Association) member an iPod shuffle pre-loaded with songs from its Best Picture nominee, “Les Miserables.”

Only “Argo” and “Lincoln” have gone all out. Just to put everything in perspective, the entire budget for fellow Best Picture nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cost a total of $1.3 million. That’s about one-tenth of the Oscar promotion budget of our top two contenders.

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