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Holiday Sneaks

Holiday fare: the big guns

It's war epics versus family themes in the year-end battle to catch Oscar's eye.

November 09, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

MOVIE THEATERS CURRENTLY DON'T SELL FOIE GRAS at the concession stand -- not even the ArcLight! -- but it's the only food metaphor for the holiday season to complement the common summer image of "popcorn" flicks.

That's not to say the wintry gust of movies that started this past week and ends with a last Oscar-qualifying ta-da on New Year's Eve is solely the province of weighty dramas and more sophisticated fare. After all, Will Ferrell is on screens in tights ("Elf"), Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear will soon appear as conjoined twins ("Stuck on You") and Charlize Theron caps things off as a serial killer ("Monster"). Wait, the last one actually is serious.

The November-December time frame is a compressed one for the movie industry, brief enough that the studios' big-gun releases typically share opening weekends, as opposed to the mutually respectful (read: terrified) summer practice of letting one studio behemoth dominate the box office each weekend. (It's a bit less of a crunch this year because some of the big players from the past like Miramax are releasing fewer films trying to avoid the traditional holiday glut.)

Explosive hits are definitely on Hollywood's mind throughout the season, be they thoughtful or fluffy, or more accurately -- as the showdowns seem to be shaping up -- be they magisterial war epics or grand-scale family films. But major studios and minor houses are also, of course, putting Academy Award glory at the top of their wish list: The last two best picture winners, "Chicago" (2002) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) were December releases. Columbia, therefore, sees a heartwarming, storybook-like tale such as Tim Burton's dying-daddy drama "Big Fish" as the ideal mixture of prestige and entertainment.

"It's about movies with universal themes," says Amy Pascal, chairman of Columbia Pictures. "I know people say, 'Oh, we put out our fancy movies for the Oscars,' but I think the reason we put out these movies is that it's when people are thinking about this stuff, thinking about what matters. They're in groups, and open to experience."

But campaigners are dealing with a tighter voting window thanks to new academy rules, with ballots due Jan. 17 as opposed to mid-February and the awards handed out Feb. 29. "The real impact is that platform movies are going to go wider sooner," says Miramax Chief Operating Officer Rick Sands, referring to the films that open in only a few theaters and add screens over time.

Opening a downbeat film on a few screens starting from the last week in December isn't as enticing an option anymore, the way it worked for Oscar winners such as "Monster's Ball" and "The Pianist." This year Focus Features, which released last year's "The Pianist," is giving its Sean Penn/Naomi Watts/Benicio Del Toro grief drama "21 Grams" the same measured rollout but with a head-start send-off on Nov. 21.

"With a film like this, you have to allow it to find its space," says Focus Co-president David Linde, adding that audiences are conditioned to expect a higher class of filmmaking -- whatever the subject -- in the final months of the year. "It's about introducing [a film] to your audience in a gradual and empathetic way."

SCREENER TOWN

The holidays have long been a hallowed time for reflection, and in Hollywood, that usually means reflecting on who's worthy of an award. For a while it seemed the Motion Picture Assn. of America ban on screeners was igniting a war not unlike the one in "The Matrix Revolutions" between free minds and hearts in Zion (the indies) and cold, tyrannical machines (the studios).

Diligent academy members might have been reduced to time-saving mall rats, squeezing in their Christmas shopping between the 11:40 a.m. multiplex showing of Jim Sheridan's immigrant drama "In America" and the 4:55 p.m. showing of Peter Weir's nautical adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." The recent reprieve allows academy members to receive screeners, saving them from that doom, but the shunning of other awards groups could still hurt the chances of independent films.

Lions Gate Films President Tom Ortenberg says he looks at the screener issue for his Oscar hopeful "Girl With a Pearl Earring" this way: "The potential for financial loss based on pirated copies of 'Girl With A Pearl Earring' is not great. The potential for financial gain from awards consideration, though, is enormous. It's probably reversed for 'Lord of the Rings.' "

With campaigning reaching a fever pitch last year, the academy is enforcing more stringent rules from now on. Since Warner Bros.' "The Last Samurai" deals with such warrior tenets as integrity, authenticity, loyalty and honor, could director Ed Zwick's 19th century epic have an unintended resonance this Oscar season? Jokes Zwick, "I think we should send a copy of the Bushido code to all the heads of marketing at the majors and minors."

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