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Race to the Finish

Why this year's Oscar season has studios acting up. And why the shortened season has studios jockeying for position

Tobey Maguire, Seabiscuit | NOT HORSING AROUND ''Seabiscuit'' chases after other Oscar hopefuls
NOT HORSING AROUND ''Seabiscuit'' chases after other Oscar hopefuls

Remember last year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a shorter Oscar season, with the nominations arriving in January instead of February and the prizes to be handed out a month earlier than usual? Remember all the tut-tutting about how overaggressive campaigning had become? Remember how the shorter season was supposed to change all that?

Well, it was a nice idea. But as Hollywood enters the homestretch of this year's Oscar voting -- complicated further by a pitched studios-versus-indies battle that delayed the mailing of videotapes of Oscar movies -- one thing's clear: The era of extreme campaigning is far from over. Witness two recent examples. First, Universal's astonishing corporate blitz to get last summer's ''Seabiscuit'' in the race -- exemplified by a massive assault of advertising in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter -- paid off with a surprise Directors Guild nomination for Gary Ross, taking the slot that many assumed would go to ''Cold Mountain'''s Anthony Minghella. And second, there's the speculation that Sony's desperation to get some Oscar buzz going for long shot ''Big Fish'' may have helped spur a fish story -- that the movie was No. 1 for the weekend ending Jan. 11. In fact, Sony sharply overestimated ''Big Fish'''s gross, but the studio nonetheless got itself a day's worth of momentum-building headlines about its ''surprise'' chart-topper.

Emphasizing boffo business and taking out lavish ''For Your Consideration'' ads are tactics that all movies with Oscar aspirations use, and these are far from the only campaign techniques. If you live in New York or L.A., chances are you've seen Clint Eastwood wax poetic about making ''Mystic River'' or Peter Jackson extol the craftsmanship behind ''The Return of the King'' in TV spots custom-made to seduce Academy members. ''It was important to make Jackson more familiar to the voters,'' says New Line domestic marketing president Russell Schwartz, whose studio's ''King'' appears to be one of the year's sure bets. (Nominations are announced Jan. 27. The ceremony takes place Feb. 29.)

Aside from the shortened schedule, one reason that this year's campaigns are so intense is that, with no clear front-runner, even the favorites have some reason to worry. At Focus Features, the ''Lost in Translation'' team is now sweating over being the only ''small'' film in a year when epics are dominating the buzz. Fox's ''Master and Commander'' didn't enjoy the kind of overwhelming box office that would have allowed it to steamroll to a Best Picture nomination. Even New Line's ''Return of the King'' can't take anything for granted since Jackson was shut out of directing and writing nominations last year. And perennial Oscar heavyweight Miramax also has reason for concern: Though ''Cold Mountain'' led all films in the Golden Globe nominations, Minghella's failure to garner a DGA nod casts doubt on the depth of support for the movie. Small movies like ''American Splendor,'' ''In America,'' and ''Monster'' are fighting their own uphill battles. The screener ban ''definitely threw a wrench in the whole thing,'' laments Newmarket president Bob Berney, whose ''Whale Rider'' and ''Monster'' are angling for nods. ''Big Fish'' producer Dan Jinks floats a different theory: ''One of the unique things about this year is that the major studios have more worthy films.''

But this year such distinctions don't mean what they used to. After all, this is a race in which Miramax's ''indie'' is once again a megabudgeted historical epic while studio movies like ''Seabiscuit'' and ''Big Fish'' find themselves having to fight like underdogs to beat higher- profile competition.

So much for the kinder and gentler campaign. Just wait till the real race -- the one for the actual statuettes -- gets under way.

Originally posted Jan 14, 2004
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