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Let the game begin

Slow warm-up makes Oscar winners hard to predict.

November 12, 2008|Christy Grosz | Grosz is a freelance writer.

Award season usually tends to put the business of Hollywood on hold for close to four months -- Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and world events slip into the background until Oscar cognoscenti have heard the contents of every red-wax-sealed envelope on that magical February evening. Not for the 81st Academy Awards, though. Attribute it to Prints & Advertising budget cuts, political-campaign fatigue or stock market blues, but the 2008 race for Oscar gold resembles more of a brisk walk so far.

With high-profile films such as "Revolutionary Road," "Doubt," "The Reader" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" screening early for tastemakers only sporadically until their mid-December theatrical releases, no clear best picture front-runner has emerged, presenting challenges for prognosticators and voters.

"Like every year at this time, people are wondering which of the remaining high-profile films still to come out this year will be true contenders and which will turn out to be just pretenders," says Lionsgate's Tom Ortenberg. "It does seem like there are more question marks later and later these last few years."

And seeing Paramount drop "The Soloist" after preliminary marketing had already started didn't lessen the overall feeling that this year isn't like the rest.

" 'The Soloist' sounds very much like a real academy movie," says one longtime awards consultant. "It's just the kind of art film that the academy's been going for lately."

Indie producer Bob Berney says the studios' low-key marketing vibe could be strategic. "You never know. The strategies can be different all the time, and they may feel like they want to get in [the race] near the theatrical opening of some of these films to also conserve the budget," he says.

The theory of staying top-of-mind for voters might be at play too. "If you are working on a limited budget and you make a splash early, that doesn't really leave you much money for when things get serious toward the end of the year," Ortenberg says.

Tightened budgets are affecting even the most enthusiastic award season participants, most notably Harvey Weinstein, who is credited with creating the current model of an award campaign.

"Everybody learned the game from Harvey," says the awards consultant, who asked not to be identified because his job requires remaining behind the scenes. "Everybody now plays Harvey's game. Unless you do a campaign like Harvey, you just don't do a campaign."

The Weinstein Co. has an award hopeful in "The Reader" (having bumped its other contender, the Viggo Mortensen starrer "The Road" into next year) but it certainly can't spend at the level of past campaigns.

"He seems to have a couple of things he's coming back in with," Berney says. "The question is, is it going to be the old-school Harvey or some new model?"

Although the old-school Weinstein, who won the best picture Oscar after a legendary trade-ad battle between his "Shakespeare in Love" and DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan," is not likely to emerge, no one doubts that the energy level will accelerate after Thanksgiving.

"If somebody feels they have a real shot, it could easily turn competitive at any moment," Berney says.

Ortenberg adds: "There's a lot of variables and a lot of unknowns, and the award season is still very much more an art than a science, but I think it's something that will be interesting to watch."

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