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The rush is on

Film studios push to prepare for the new 2004 awards air date.

March 25, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The surprising finish to this year's Oscar race is barely history, but that doesn't mean it's too early to begin speculation about next year's campaign. To wit: The third film in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy will not debut in theaters for another eight months, but already its makers are racing to finish the film. Why the early rush? So voters for next year's Academy Awards will have ample opportunity to see it.

The Oscars for films released in 2003 will be presented one month earlier than usual, on Feb. 29, 2004, and the date change already is shaking up Hollywood. Several studios are hurrying to make sure their award hopefuls are ready to be shown well before their December debuts, smaller independents are considering releasing their prestige titles as early as September, and the Golden Globes and the Independent Feature Project's Spirit Awards may move up their dates to stay ahead of the Oscar curve.

The schedule shift by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was prompted by declining television ratings and a glut of pre-Oscar ceremonies like the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. awards that were stealing Academy Award thunder. But the abbreviated timetable may produce another, potentially more important, outcome: slightly more civilized awards campaigning.

"It's gotten to be so vulgar and very nasty," Samuel Goldwyn Jr., an academy member and the producer of two Oscar shows, says of the current style of awards promotions. "It's become such a dirty business, and people are horrified."

While a mere four weeks' difference may seem inconsequential, the repercussions are in fact significant for the studios, filmmakers and those involved in the Academy Awards race. Every one of this year's five best picture nominees debuted in theaters on or after Dec. 18. Nomination ballots were not due until Jan. 29, giving Oscar voters a whole month to hit the multiplex and sift through piles of complimentary DVDs and videos before marking their votes.

Next year, the nominations themselves will be announced at the end of January, as opposed to mid-February, as has been the habit. That means Oscar ballots could be due as early as mid-January, or a mere two weeks after the end of the year, a period when most Oscar movies historically debut.

Once Academy Award nominations are announced, the Oscar polls will close four weeks later, rather than the six-week window that currently separates nominations and the presentation of the golden statuettes. (The academy has not yet announced specific dates for anything but the show itself.)

Several other prominent awards shows are already scrambling to make sure their trophies are presented early too. The Screen Actors Guild Awards, which were handed out March 9 this year, are set to be disbursed Feb. 22 next year. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., a statistically insignificant organization whose Golden Globes have nevertheless become an Oscar bellwether, also may adjust its calendar, and will likely move up the Globes ceremony one week earlier, to mid-January.

Early tastemakers, including film critics' organizations, begin casting their ballots well before Christmas. Golden Globe nominations were announced Dec. 19 last year, and the National Board of Review picked its best film, "The Hours," on Dec. 4, a full three weeks before the film opened in theaters.

If New Line Cinema is therefore unable to screen its third "Lord of the Rings" film several weeks before its planned Dec. 17 debut, the film could miss out on early awards attention and suffer from the stampede of Christmas films. Last year's second "Lord of the Rings" installment, "The Two Towers," was shown to critics and other awards voters starting the first week of December. The studio is now planning to show the third film beginning in mid-November, says New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz.

All of a sudden, November is going to be filled with some of Hollywood's classiest movies. Twentieth Century Fox recently moved its Russell Crowe nautical epic, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," from June to November, in part to bolster its award chances.

It is the smaller, independent companies that will have to make the most adjustments to the new Oscar date. Without unlimited marketing budgets, these outfits will now have to unveil their movies early and quickly. If they follow past habits and patiently wait for word-of-mouth to build, it could be too late for awards attention when a film's momentum finally reaches its apex.

"We definitely are going to have to release our films faster," says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing, whose fall art house titles include William H. Macy's "The Cooler," Hayden Christensen's "Shattered Glass" and Colin Firth's "The Girl With a Pearl Earring." Says Goldwyn, whose company released the Oscar-nominated "The Crimes of Padre Amaro" on Nov. 15: "You just have to move everything up. You'll have to get your movies opened in September and October."

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