Clint Eastwood just got some tough new competition in the Best Director Oscar race: himself. In a surprise last-minute move, Warner Bros. has decided to release Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima his Japanese-centric counterpoint to Flags of Our Fathers on Dec. 20, roughly two months earlier than originally planned. It's a switch that could upend many of next year's major Academy Awards battles. But more importantly, the move is a clear acknowledgment that Flags, once considered a top Best Picture contender, needs some help, and fast.
After its fifth weekend, Flags, a Warner/Paramount co-production that earned strong reviews from many top critics, has failed to connect with audiences, grossing a mediocre $33 million. As a result, other October releases like Babel and The Departed have overtaken it in the all-important Best Picture derby. If Iwo Jima is received well, it could help the Academy appreciate Eastwood's overall vision and boost Flags ' prospects once again. Of course, there's also the chance Iwo Jima could effectively push Flags out of contention, if it's deemed the stronger of the two films. In any case, the development also severely complicates Warner Bros.' Oscar-season schedule the studio is already juggling campaigns for The Departed, The Good German, and Blood Diamond. (It'll also likely result in a hastily planned Best Actor push for Iwo Jima star Ken Watanabe.)
So what does this all mean for Eastwood? Two Oscar contenders from the same filmmaker in the same calendar year is not unheard of: Steven Soderbergh scored Best Director nods for Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2001 and won for the latter. But with Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar, and Bill Condon all in the running, Eastwood will have some difficulty defending both fronts.