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How a silent, black-and-white French film won big at the Oscars

By Nick Thompson, CNN
updated 4:47 AM EST, Tue February 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Artist" won Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actor
  • Harvey Weinstein's company also distributed "The Iron Lady," "My Week with Marilyn" and "Undefeated"
  • Movie mogul Weinstein also a big winner last year with "The King's Speech"

(CNN) -- "The Artist" beat out films from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Clooney to top honors at the Academy Awards on Sunday -- not bad for a silent, black-and-white French film with no big-name stars.

Director Michel Hazanavicius's love letter to old Hollywood cinema was the undisputed king of the industry's biggest night, garnering five Oscars for best picture, best directing, best costume design, best original music score and best actor.

But was the rise of "The Artist" from contender to best picture winner -- the first silent film to win the award since "Wings" at the first Academy Awards in 1929 -- a triumph of marketing over art?

For many, the film's triumph at the Oscars was a foregone conclusion, the result of a marketing process set in motion months ago by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who snapped up the U.S. distribution rights before anyone at the Cannes film festival had a chance to swoon over the French film last year.

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"There wasn't any doubt when it came to the top awards who the winners were going to be," Total Film deputy editor Jamie Graham told CNN. "Harvey is the best in the business at getting that awards attention, and it became clear with 'The Artist' two months ago that this was the film that had caught the tailwind."

The mercurial movie promoter and co-founder of Miramax Films, credited for discovering "Pulp Fiction" director Quentin Tarantino and a string of commercial and critical successes including "The English Patient," "Shakespeare in Love" and last year's "The King's Speech," is famous for harnessing the momentum of his films at the right time and riding waves of publicity to wins at the podium and at the box office.

No sooner had Jean Dujardin taken the top actor award for his portrayal of silent film star George Valentin at Cannes than Weinstein had the film's stars and directors hitting the award campaign circuit to capitalize on its surprise success.

Best actor winner Dujardin walked red carpets around the world as other awards began to flood in. Co-stars Berenice Bejo and John Goodman plugged the film on CNN, and Uggie, the film's canine star, played dead and performed tricks from the film on major news channels on both sides of the Atlantic.

"People who don't play the game tend not to win at the Oscars," said Graham. "You really have to press the flesh and hit the road, and for the last three months their lives would've been dedicated to that."

Empire magazine's Ian Nathan says that by the time the Golden Globe Award nominations came around, the race for Oscar glory had narrowed to a two-horse race between George Clooney's "The Descendants" and "The Artist" -- a race Weinstein's relentless campaign strategy began to win by the end of last year.

"Something about what Harvey managed to do -- getting these three very charming leads and the director out there, getting the dog out there, screening it to everyone who mattered, milking the nostalgia and old Hollywoodness of it -- lifted it from the competitor to the favorite long before the show came around," he told CNN.

"Once one film has a foothold -- once it's become the thing like 'The King's Speech' did last year -- then even Clooney can't compete," he said.

Weinstein's strength, says Nathan, lies in his ability to catch a "middle-brow" film right before it becomes popular and turn it into the frontrunner.

Nathan told CNN: "He's very good at picking the middle-brow films... and the Oscars are a mainstream event which celebrates the best of the middle. Harvey's been a very wily player in that, and you have to give him that credit, he knows how to map that out over a year."

While "The Artist" has punched above its weight at the box office, tallying roughly $76 million in worldwide receipts so far (58% from outside the U.S.), the film didn't receive much of a box office bump following the announcement of Oscar nominations in January, according to Ian Nathan -- especially compared with "The King's Speech," which raked in an estimated $415 million worldwide (66% from international) on its way to winning best picture, actor and director at the 2011 Academy Awards.

"It hasn't made the usual Oscar success money that the 'The King's Speech' did last year," said Nathan. "It's a silent film with a French sensibility, and it's a tougher sell for audiences. But now that it's got all the attention in the world, can that translate to more money?"

While the money may not follow, Nathan says one thing seems certain -- after a relatively dry decade, the back-to-back successes of "The King's Speech" and "The Artist" means Harvey Weinstein is back in business.

"Harvey's come out of his fallow years as the guy to beat at the Oscars," he said. "It's a bit of a second coming -- clearly he's still got a little bit of that magic."

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