The battle begins

Did bumping up Oscar's date shrink the season or just kick it off earlier?

By Rachel Abramowitz and John Horn
Los Angeles Times
September 26, 2006

It used to be that December was the cruelest month for Oscar contenders who jousted for critical and box office attention at the end of the year. Now the battle begins in September, as more and more Oscar hopefuls crowd the fall weekends.

The rationale is simple. To scale back on award campaigns and to make the Oscars more current, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved its award ceremony up a month to February, starting with 2004's broadcast. But instead of limiting the campaigning, the move seems to be having the reverse effect as Oscar hopefuls try to muscle their way into theaters earlier than ever, with the resulting award campaigns lasting months instead of weeks.

This year, any number of highbrow movies including Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima story, "Flags of Our Fathers," and Helen Mirren as the British monarch in "The Queen" will premiere well before Halloween. Of course, the strategy can be dangerous. Oscar season has already claimed its first casualty the Sean Penn gumbo "All the King's Men," which divided critics and, more significantly for its academy fate, bombed at the box office. "When you start looking at the release schedule, even in September and October there are no weekends in which there are not at least one or two Oscar aspirants," says James Schamus, chief executive of Focus Features, which released "Hollywoodland," about the death of "Superman" actor George Reeves, on Sept. 8 and will unveil the apartheid-era South Africa drama "Catch a Fire" on Oct. 27.

Both films premiered at prestigious end-of-summer film festivals (Venice and Toronto). Indeed much of the early fall strategy is dependent on film festivals, as the studios and their art film divisions realized that the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals were powerful opinion-shaping tools in launching a film. To ride that festival momentum, distributors had to accelerate release plans.

By relocating so many good movies from the winter to the fall, though, Hollywood still risks eating its young: If award contenders that premiere in September and October don't pan out at the box office, they are almost certain to be forgotten when Oscar nomination ballots are mailed to voters Dec. 26. The Oscars are scheduled to be presented Feb. 25.

Some of the year's most prominent award contenders still will premiere in December, with Peter O'Toole's May-December love story "Venus" due Dec. 15, the musical "Dreamgirls" arriving Dec. 21 and "Blood Diamond," a Leonardo DiCaprio drama set during civil war in Sierra Leone, coming out Dec. 15.

But a far greater number of quality movies will premiere much earlier, in the hope that earlier release dates can not only help sell more tickets but also establish unbeatable awards energy.

Many of those September and October movies are being released by the studios' specialized film divisions and truly independent companies, such as ThinkFilm, outfits that generally can't spend the small fortunes the big studios lavish on their Oscar efforts. By moving out of December, these smaller companies hope to establish their films' credentials before the 800-pound gorillas arrive closer to year's end.

"It's a bit of a chess game every year," says Daniel Battsek, the president of Miramax Films. Miramax is releasing "The Queen," which delves into the behind-the-scenes struggles in the wake of Princess Diana's death, on Oct. 6 and has already garnered Helen Mirren the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival.
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