'Elegy,' 'Frozen River' beating the rush

It pays to be early, or so that was the thinking behind Sony Picture Classics' decision to send out the academy screener of the Sundance hit " Frozen River" back on Sept. 24.

Yes, that was five months before the February 2009 Oscar ceremony, and way ahead of the pack in this unusually slow-out-of-the-gate season in which little has even screened theatrically let alone been sent out on DVD, but how else can Melissa Leo, the indie film's much-lauded star, compete with such potential nominees as Angelina Jolie, It-girl Anne Hathaway or seemingly perennial contenders Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman?

Sony Pictures Classics President Michael Barker says the studio is just repeating its campaign strategy from 2005, when it sent out "Junebug" early to get attention for Amy Adams -- who did wind up getting an Oscar nomination. Sony wanted "to send it at a time when people are not receiving other DVDs," Barker says, because this early in the game "there's a good chance they might throw something into the machine that's not as high-profile. And Melissa Leo's performance is so good."

"Elegy," the May-December romance starring Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz, was also sent out in September for similar reasons.

"The idea was to be one of the first films out of the gate, not to be part of the mailing glut," says David Dinerstein, president of marketing at Lakeshore Entertainment, which made the film.

Dinerstein adds that this year, given the economy, he expects to see more grass-roots, shoe-leather campaigns.

"Distributors are going to be a little more judicious about how they vie for an award. Advertising will be affected to some extent, which in some way will put a film like 'Elegy' on more equal footing."

Another Oscar strategist for a major studio says he expects that spending will stay the same, but studios will get less bang for their buck, as trade advertising and TV advertising have become more expensive.

Those with early bird screeners are also trying to capitalize on what seems to be the most wide open Oscar race in years.

Last year at this time, "No Country for Old Men" had already stormed Cannes, where it was nominated for a Golden Palm. "Juno" had sneaked at the Telluride Film Festival before beginning a worldwide festival circuit and "Atonement" appeared at the Venice Film Festival.

"I'm not going to bet on anything until I see how it screens before an academy audience," says an awards specialist who declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing his or her job.

Warner Bros. has also sent notice to various guild members asking if they want their screeners in DVD or Blu-ray, though at least one competitor wonders if the Blu-ray (which also plays on Sony PlayStation) technology has penetrated the academy, which tends to skew old.

"I can see a 64-year-old academy member going over to his grandson's house saying, 'I need your PlayStation.' "

Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.


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