If everything goes right for Hollywood over the next four months, you'll be running from multiplex to multiplex thinking, "Ah, finally, an overload of great movies!"
Such a scenario has yet to play out, ever, yet you may find yourself scrambling just the same: With the Academy Awards show moved from March to February of next year, the studios are starting their Oscar campaigns earlier than ever, and many of the possible contenders are opening earlier as well.
Yet the compressed Oscar time frame also means that the distributors have a narrower window to get their movies seen by the public, as well as Academy members, so the competition may be more intense, after all.
"If you want to qualify for the Oscars, you have to be released in this calendar year," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking company Exhibitor Relations. "The trick is when are you going to expand [to more theaters] and get that groundswell going, because you're not going to have a lot of time."
The good stuff
The fall and Oscars are not synonymous - nor are Oscars and artistic merit - but the season is the time when Hollywood at least tries to release good movies. As you may have noticed, the studios spend their summers pushing franchises and sequels to squeeze every last dollar from out-of-school kids.
This summer, with its glut of such lowest-common-denominator product, has been considered a financial and artistic disappointment; only "Finding Nemo," "The Italian Job," "Freaky Friday" and blatant Oscar bait "Seabiscuit" matched critical and popular appeal. In most cases you were better off skipping the studio output in favor of indie films such as "Whale Rider," "American Splendor," "Capturing the Friedmans," "Spellbound," "Buffalo Soldiers" and "The Secret Lives of Dentists."
Now the studios are suddenly interested in adults again, so we'll be getting movies that can't be summed up with a brand name or snappy sentence, such as Sofia Coppola's moody "Lost in Translation" (Sept. 12), which has Bill Murray playing a jaded actor feeling isolated while on a commercial shoot in Tokyo until he befriends a photographer's similarly alienated wife, played by Scarlett Johansson. Nothing snappy about that description.
Other more serious fare on the horizon includes Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's novel "The Human Stain" (Sept. 26 ), featuring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in a messy affair; Clint Eastwood's dark "Mystic River" (Oct. 10), in which three friends reunite after the daughter of one is killed; Joel Schumacher's "Veronica Guerin" (Oct. 17), starring Cate Blanchett as a murdered Irish journalist; and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "21 Grams" (Nov. 14), intertwining Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in a reportedly grim tale of fate and death.
"There's a [boatload] of very dark movies," said Tony Angellotti, who is running the Oscar campaigns for Universal's movies (including "Seabiscuit") and Disney's animated fare (including "Finding Nemo").
Focus Features is opening "21 Grams" in November even though the company conducted a successful Oscar campaign for "The Pianist" by releasing it in New York and Los Angeles at the tail end of last year and then rolling it out to other markets at the beginning of 2003. (It opened here Jan. 3.) Several 2002 films boasted similar release patterns, but the only end-of-the-year 2003 releases scheduled to go wide in early 2004 are Nigel Cole's "Calendar Girls," with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters already generating buzz as middle-aged women who strip for a fundraiser (it spreads nationwide on Jan. 1), and Ron Howard's Old West father-daughter drama "The Missing," starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett (Jan. 9).
No room for smaller films
The smaller films generally are steering clear of the year's end thanks to the earlier Oscar deadlines and competition from the big boys. Oscar nomination ballots are being mailed out Jan. 2 and are due back Jan. 17, two weeks earlier than usual. Nominations will be announced Jan. 27 (they were Feb. 11 this year), and the awards show is scheduled for Feb. 29 (it was March 23 this year).
"That means you have to use December to see the films, whereas in the past people used all of December and all of January because ballots weren't due till the beginning of February," Angellotti said. "The real problem is going to be how's everyone going to see these movies? There's just no way."
The problem applies to regular moviegoers as well Oscar voters. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved up the show so it would take place closer to the calendar year in which the honored films were released. "The board's hope at the time they did that was by having it be a shorter period, it would increase people's interest in watching the show," Academy communications director John Pavlik said.
Big movies, big Oscar ratings
Yet the show's ratings are generally related to the nominated movies' popularity, so potential viewers need time to catch up with them. "The tricky part is there's two weeks less time after the nominations for people to see movies that have been nominated," Pavlik said. "I am a little dubious because I don't think most of the people in the rest of the country have seen those pictures anyway, whether it's February or March."