Stuffed Envelope

022706 article scocca Stuffed Envelope“It’s almost like watching a ballgame played without the ball,” Janet Maslin said.

The former New York Times film critic was reflecting on the burgeoning buzz around the Academy Awards, in a year of distinctly unbuzzy competition.

Amid the modest, tasteful contenders, there is no Titanic—let alone a Dances with Wolves—to provoke fisticuffs about art versus commerce.

But that doesn’t stop the commerce. “The big pile of cash that’s still using a lot of newspaper advertising is Hollywood,” said one ad-industry observer. “And that’s why they’re going like crazy to it.”

And the press, in turn, is creating a hospitable editorial environment for the movie ads—reserving space in print and on the Web for writing about the Academy Awards, whether there’s anything worth saying or not.

“Newspapers—whoever’s covering the Oscars—can’t part with the idea that this is the most important movie event of the year,” Ms. Maslin said.

It wasn’t always so. The Times, for one, historically kept the Academy Awards at arm’s length. The Oscars were a movie-industry promotional event, and the movie industry could promote them.

In 1990, The Times put the ceremony on its front page with its old-fashioned, chin-stroking detachment: “Sublime and Tedious, Oscars Endure as Rite and Spectacle.”

“For those who study the relationship between movies and television, the Academy Awards is the perfect symbiotic event,” Jane Gross wrote.

Since then, a new form of symbiosis has developed: the relationship between movies and The Times. So the Feb. 20 Times, on its front page, referred readers to an Oscar-themed arts-section story about Jon Stewart’s preparations for hosting the telecast.

The story could also be found on the paper’s Web site in the special Red Carpet section, which debuted Dec. 1. There, print-edition stories about awards are gathered alongside Web-only awards columns, David Carr’s awards blog, awards multimedia presentations and an “Interactive Oscar Ballot.”

Deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman, who oversees The Times’ Web operation, announced in a staff memo on Dec. 7, 2005, that the site would “include a bunch of things you won’t see in the newspaper.”

It would, however, have things not dissimilar from the products of other newspaper companies.

“The Envelope will be the destination for everything awards, from sharp commentary to the glamour of the red carpet,” said remarks attributed to Joel Sappell, the Los Angeles Times executive editor for “interactive,” in an Oct. 31 press release.

The Red Carpet had followed hot on the heels of the Los Angeles Times’ awards site, which features awards-themed stories, polls, podcasts and a trio of blogs, including the acquisition of GoldDerby.com, a longtime awards-enthusiast Web site.

The movie industry seems enthusiastic about the coverage. Last month, Variety reported that Universal had made a massive full-page ad buy on both coasts, filling the New York and Los Angeles Timeses with multiple pages touting Munich and other films. Last year, another Variety report pegged the price of a full-page color ad in the Los Angeles Times at “about $50,000.”

On Feb. 1, Tribune Publishing president Scott Smith described the entertainment market in his company’s fourth-quarter conference call: “We’ve also got the phenomena where the L.A. Times basically gets a whole bunch of trade advertising in the movie category, and that’s driven both by the Academy Awards and other awards at this time of year.”

Mr. Smith then offered a prediction. “And expect over time,” he said, “that we will continue to get a really big share of movie advertising …. ”

And what are readers getting? In the Jon Stewart piece, reporter Jacques Steinberg offered the fit-to-print news that Mr. Stewart has “signed on to lead the establishment’s ultimate talent show,” that his performance “could be remembered for years to come,” and that his writing staff is “reluctant to give away much of their game plan.”

Mr. Steinberg’s story jumped to page E7, where it faced Oscar-themed ads for Munich, Transamerica, Capote and Crash.

Last year, the Times coverage was of then-newly-selected Oscar host Chris Rock. In the run-up to the 2005 show, Mr. Rock informed The Times’ Lola Ogunnaike that “You’ve got to play to what the audience at home went to see.”

In all, The Times ran four separate preview stories about Mr. Rock’s hosting assignment, totaling 3,400 words. With two weeks till show time, Mr. Stewart is closing in on the 3,000-word mark, including a Week in Review entry that block-quoted Mr. Stewart’s Daily Show remarks on the subject of his own selection as Oscar host.

Mr. Stewart and Mr. Rock both received more pre-show coverage in The Times than the previous four first-time hosts—Steve Martin, David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal—combined. Ms. Goldberg’s selection for the 1994 show, for instance, rated a 95-word squib from the A.P.

The public interest hasn’t grown at the same rate. According to a graph accompanying Mr. Steinberg’s piece, 45,083,000 viewers tuned in for Ms. Goldberg’s debut. And 42,139,000 tuned in last year to see Mr. Rock.

The trend, in fact, is that there is no trend: Since 1990, Academy Awards viewership has hovered more or less steadily in the low-to-mid-40 millions. That’s how many people care about the Oscars.

What’s changed is how interested the press is in catering to those 40-odd million people. In The New York Times, for the first three months of 1990, a Nexis search for “Oscar” and “Best Picture” or “Best Actor” turns up Ms. Gross’ meditation, among 17 other stories. Five years later, there were only 22.

Through the next decade, however, the number rose steadily each year—till last year saw a whopping 77.

“There’s no danger you’ll miss anything,” Ms. Maslin said.

Nor will the reader be allowed to miss nothing. The coverage sprawls across the sections—arts, business, style, news. This past weekend, The Times Magazine spent 27 full pages and the cover on its now-annual portfolio of photos of movie actors, this time daubing the subjects with artsy makeup or attaching various appliances to them: gold body paint on Charlize Theron; cat’s-eye pupils on George Clooney.

Ms. Maslin’s sports-without-the-ball analogy is on the mark: The Oscars have gone from being the Super Bowl to becoming the N.F.L. draft, for which football analysts spend weeks making mock drafts, with round after round of imaginary picks.

Last year, Manohla Dargis offered Times readers this Mel Kiper Jr.–worthy meditation: “Seventy percent of the actors who have won an Oscar for a leading performance have been nominated at least one other time in the same category. Laurence Olivier racked up nine nominations for actor, Jack Nicholson eight, while Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon and Dustin Hoffman each earned seven. It seemed improbable at the time that a newcomer like Adrien Brody, who won actor for ‘The Pianist,’ could beat out contenders like Daniel Day-Lewis. But if a newcomer takes on the mantle of tragedy—as a dying drunk or a disabled scrapper—his odds of winning improve.”

Or this year, Caryn James worked through the following multi-hypothetical, six weeks before Oscar Day: “If there’s some fear haunting ‘Brokeback’ now, it’s that the film has picked up so much momentum there might be a backlash before Oscar time.”

Mr. Landman, who was in charge of the culture department during the last Oscar season, said he was “not a big expert on Oscar coverage” and that the topic of overkill on the Academy Awards was “stupid.”

“It’s not a new thing,” Mr. Landman said of The Times’ coverage.

But there is a historical change behind it. Observers in advertising and the press trace the rise of Oscar publicity to the Miramax marketing campaigns of the 90’s, which gave reporters a dose of conflict to write about—and advertising departments a new product to sell. Suddenly, the awards jockeying was out in the open, and it was addressed to the newspaper audience.

“A couple of years ago, The New York Times and the L.A. Times got into the game, and I think probably Harvey Weinstein was one of the first to really utilize those publications to really market to the voter,” said Rose Einstein, vice president and publishing director of Variety.

So a self-reinforcing cycle was born: Newspapers were the new vehicle for Oscar promotions, and Oscar promotions were news. And where the Academy once sought only to flatter itself, it now flatters the press as well: This year’s Best Picture finalists are pitched to a stereotypical coastal-metropolitan journalist’s sympathies—both explicit (Good Night, and Good Luck, Capote) and implicit (Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Munich).

“There is a complete loop going on this year,” Ms. Maslin said, “and it is a loop that completely excludes the audience …. Where’s the person who lives in Ohio and has seen two out of the five nominees?”

Miramax itself is out of the picture—“There’s no one staging a competition this year,” Ms. Maslin said—but the Miramax effect lingers. Writers are primed to chew over the Oscars, and their speculation is one more kind of content, suitable to be rehashed in every available medium.

“If the newspaper has a blog and a podcast … editors feel like they’re not doing their jobs if they don’t dish it out at the same level,” Ms. Maslin said. “So they dish it out whether they have anything to dish or not.”

Ms. Maslin added that, as far as The Times’ own Web operations go, she has faith in Mr. Landman’s judgment. “Jon Landman is a really, really smart guy,” she said.

And Mr. Landman rejected the notion that the Red Carpet represents any new growth in The Times’ Oscar coverage. “The only thing that’s new is that the Web gives opportunities to do it in a different way,” Mr. Landman said. “Just as it does in other things.”

For comparison, Mr. Landman cited Thom Shanker’s Web video reports from Iraq: “Now we can, so we do …. Is that expansion of coverage of the war in Iraq?”

—with additional reporting by Lizzy Ratner