Nicole Kidman: Steve Granitz/
Gary Susman
May 01, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Would Nicole Kidman have won her Oscar if ”The Hours” were released this year? Maybe not, given the new voting schedule just announced by the Academy. The earlier deadlines — which require Academy members to pick nominees by January 17, 2004, for the 76th annual awards gala on Feb. 29 (a month ahead of past years) — seem designed to do two things: shorten the often bitter campaign season, and cut the influence of thunder-stealing awards shows, particularly the Golden Globes. The Globes have a reputation as Oscar prognosticators — they were the first to recognize Kidman, for example — but that changes next winter when Oscar nominations become due a day before the Globes announce their winners.

While it’s hard to know exactly how the awards season will change in 2004, here are our best guesses about who will emerge as the new winners — and losers:

WINNER: THE STUDIOS The shortened campaign season will save them millions in advertising dollars. Plus, they have the distribution muscle to claim the most advantageous release dates in the shrunken Oscar viewing season. Already, six studio prestige pics, including ”Cold Mountain” and ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” have staked out December dates.

LOSER: INDEPENDENT MOVIES Oscar’s indie hopefuls, including Lars von Trier’s ”Dogville” and Charlie Kaufman’s ”Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” will need earlier release dates to gather enough critical and box office momentum to make people take notice. But will voters remember pre-December releases when making their nominations?

WINNER: CRITICS’ GROUPS With the Globes’ influence diminished, those groups that vote in December — the National Board of Review, and the groups from New York, Boston, and Los Angeles — will become more important in identifying the front-runners.

LOSER: DARK HORSES Come-from-behind candidates like Halle Berry (”Monster’s Ball”) and Adrien Brody (”The Pianist”) benefited from a longer campaign season. Now they have a month less to entice voters to see their films.

WINNER: FILM FESTIVALS Difficult movies like ”The Pianist” and ”The Quiet American” got a boost from positive buzz earned at festival screenings. Watch for Cannes and, especially, September’s Toronto International Film Festival to take on added importance in singling out worthy films.

WINNER: MOVIEGOERS If distributors are forced to stop cramming all the quality releases into late December and early January, there could be good new movies to see nearly every weekend from Columbus Day to Christmas.

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