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It's that time already?

The Academy Award buzz season didn't shrink. Now it just starts earlier than ever.

September 26, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz and John Horn | Times Staff Writers

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.

"The fall to me is always a scary time. It's a traffic jam of very good, upscale academy-type movies all vying for screens on the same date," says Picturehouse President Bob Berney, who is releasing the Diane Arbus story "Fur" on Nov. 10.

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.

"You can release films earlier than you used to and still sustain the interest through the voting period," Battsek says. "People have longer memories than we give them credit for."

For years, December has been the most reliable month for releasing best picture winners.

"A Beautiful Mind," "Chicago," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Million Dollar Baby" all came out in late December, and all took home the top Oscar in recent years. But the best picture statuette for 2005 was presented to "Crash," released in May.

Two other best picture nominees for 2005, "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" were launched in September and October, respectively. The year before, Oscar contenders "Ray" and "Sideways" both unfurled in October.

"Crash's" surprise win is hardly the only thing driving the push to release Oscar-caliber movies earlier in the year.

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