Race to the Oscars

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.

The good news is you probably won't see a repeat of last year, when all five best picture nominees were released in December's last two weeks. The end-of-the-year crunch meant that several fine films - such as "Antwone Fisher," "The 25th Hour" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" - got trounced as moviegoers stampeded toward the official contenders.

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.

Dark movies

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."

Oscar voters and regular filmgoers are likely to be drawn first to the higher-profile movies being released in the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year's, the year's mostly highly concentrated moviegoing period. On Christmas day, Disney is offering John Lee Hancock's epic "The Alamo," starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton; Miramax is releasing Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's Civil War novel "Cold Mountain," starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger; Paramount is releasing John Woo's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's memory-loss story "Paycheck," starring Ben Affleck; and Universal is releasing P.J. Hogan's live-action "Peter Pan."

Those films will vie with other December heavy hitters including Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (Dec. 17); Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai" (Dec. 5), starring Tom Cruise; Mike Newell's "Mona Lisa's Smile" (Dec. 19), starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal; and Nancy Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give" (Dec. 12), starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.

"'Cold Mountain' is opening at the end of the year because that makes sense for the film commercially given the great Christmas play time," said Cynthia Swartz, the Miramax senior executive who spearheads the company's consistently sharp Oscar campaigns.

Miramax has mastered the art of releasing its prime Oscar contender at the end of the year so that it can ride weeks and weeks of Oscar-related publicity while cashing in at the box office. The most recent best picture winner, "Chicago," wound up grossing $170.6 million in North America.

Earlier campaigns

Swartz said working around the new Oscar deadlines shouldn't be a problem; the campaigns will just start earlier. "The big question," she added, "is is it going to hurt films financially because they'll have a month less of play time?"

Twentieth Century Fox is unveiling its top Oscar contender, Peter Weir's nautical adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," starring Russell Crowe, on Nov. 14, and Columbia is releasing Tim Burton's "Big Fish," an Oscar-touted drama starring Billy Crudup and Albert Finney, on Nov. 26. Also sure to draw attention are Quentino Tarantino's first film in six years, the revenge action flick "Kill Bill: Volume One," and the Coen brothers' George Clooney-Catherine Zeta-Jones comedy "Intolerable Cruelty," both scheduled to open Oct. 10, plus "The Matrix Revolutions" (Nov. 5.)

The fall schedule is so jammed with movies aimed for a relatively movie-literate crowd that the smaller distributors have had trouble slotting in their own films. Palm Pictures is releasing Olivier Assayas' cyberthriller "Demonlover" on Sept. 19 and Claude Chabrol's "The Flower of Evil" on Oct. 10 (it was bumped here to Nov. 7 thanks to the Chicago International Film Festival) out of fears that the screens might not be available later.

"We're definitely releasing them earlier just because we think it is going to be more crowded, and we want to make sure we can get the screen space," said Ryan Werner, Palm's head of theatrical distribution.

Music Box programmer Brian Andreotti said he felt the Oscar shift's "trickle-down effect" as he booked the art-house theater's upcoming months. "This fall calendar was very difficult to put together," he said. "There weren't a lot of things to work with, and I'm thinking the distributors I work with are kind of holding off on their films because they assume the fall will be too crowded for them."

Still, Werner said he's confident the Oscar shift shouldn't make much difference in the long run.

"There's more room in the spring because screens should open up earlier," he said. "I think ultimately on the back end, it's not really much difference."

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