By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In an industry known for its boundless self-promotion, campaigning for this year's Oscars has been a relatively civil affair, compared with the bare-knuckled sparring of years past.
But that does not mean studios have toned down the campaigns around their films and nominees. In fact, Oscar watchers believe this awards season has been the most feverishly contested in recent memory.
"I feel that this year is more exhausting than ever," said Tim Gray, the awards editor at trade publication Variety, noting the number of high-quality films among the best picture nominees.
"It is more intense partly because there are more movies in contention. But in every race, there are very few shoo-ins, and so people are seeing an opportunity," he added.
This year, nine films will compete for the best picture Oscar, which will be handed out on March 2 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Oscar voting ends on Tuesday.
Although, slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" and outer space thriller "Gravity" appear to be the favorites for the top prize, winning the statuette could come down to a handful of votes, Gray said.
"I think it works on the supposition, 'Leave no stone unturned,'" he said, noting how stars and directors have been attending screenings and question-and-answer sessions, sometimes more than one per day, to reach some 6,000 Oscar voters.
An emphasis on voter outreach could play a bigger role this year, when "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" tied for the top award from the Producers Guild of America last month out of thousands of votes. The award is one of the top predictors of Oscar success.
And in the acting races, some old-school tactics appear to be paying off. Last week, best actor hopeful Leonardo DiCaprio sat with media for interviews about "The Wolf of Wall Street," also a best picture nominee, went on late night TV and did an online question-and-answer session billed as a "career Q&A." His chances to win his first Oscar seem to have grown.
"American Hustle" director David O. Russell took the time to appear on local morning television in Los Angeles, perhaps in a bid to catch the eyes of the mostly L.A.-based Academy members as they sat down with their oatmeal and coffee.
Studios have also placed promotional spots on the National Public Radio affiliate in Santa Monica, California, which reaches the west side of Los Angeles traditionally populated by the entertainment crowd, said Jonathan Taplin, an Academy member.
"It couldn't be a more hyper-local target than that," said Taplin, a communications professor at the University of Southern California and producer of Martin Scorsese's breakthrough 1973 film "Mean Streets."
"That's probably a very smart place to catch Academy voters," he added.
It all appears to be above the fray, unlike last year when studios actively torpedoed their competitors with behind-the-scenes mudslinging that ultimately took "Zero Dark Thirty" out of its early front-runner status.
But sometimes a studio's own promotional choice can raise eyebrows.
A campaign by "12 Years a Slave" studio, Fox Searchlight Pictures, promoting the film with the tagline "It's Time" could rub some Academy members the wrong way with its ambiguous message, awards watchers said.
"It's a really bold campaign statement because you don't want to come across as trying to shame Academy members into voting for your movie," said Glenn Whipp, the film awards expert at the Los Angeles Times, "but at the same time, a little prodding toward the idea of rewarding this movie that looks at history in a way that no other movie has isn't such a bad thing."
Fox Searchlight said that tagline was meant to have multiple meanings, including encouraging audiences to learn about the life of Solomon Northup, whose 19th-century memoir formed the basis of the drama.
"It's time to see the film, it's time for our culture to know who Solomon Northup is and, finally, it's time for our country to reconcile our past and its impact on our lives today," said Michelle Hooper, executive vice president of marketing at Fox Searchlight.
One of the challenges of running a successful Oscar campaign comes down to demonstrating to Oscar voters that they will be casting their ballot for actors, directors and studios with the desire to win, said Tony Angellotti, a veteran awards consultant who works for Disney's Pixar and Universal Pictures.
"People tend not to vote for those people who appear indifferent to this very prestigious award," he said. "Oftentimes, we see the winners being those who participated in the process."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Jan Paschal)