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Oscar's New Calendar

IN 2004, OSCAR FILMS WILL BE GETTING RELEASED ALL YEAR LONG.

Got plans for next Labor Day? Because if they include paying a visit to the multiplex to zone out in front of Hollywood's latest cheapie horror flick, you may want to revise your datebook. On a late-summer weekend that traditionally sees low ticket sales for movies like Jeepers Creepers and feardotcom, this year you'll find the period-costume adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair. ''It's no longer an article of religious faith that to win an Oscar you have to release your film [at the end] of the year,'' says Focus Features copresident James Schamus.

Why are studios now looking to rip up their timeworn release plans? Largely, it's a response to recent fiddling with the Oscar-season structure, like last year's DVD-screener kerfuffle and the moving of the show from March to February to increase TV ratings. The result has folks all over Hollywood taking fresh steps to get their movies maximum exposure among audiences and awards voters. Such actions portend a different movie calendar than what we're used to -- one in which more Oscar-baiting films will be released earlier in the year, where minor holidays will become beachheads for major releases, and where fans will line up to see prestige pictures at Thanksgiving, not Christmas.

''Scheduling is as important as anything else in marketing today,'' says Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein, who has made no secret of his disappointment with Cold Mountain's omission from Best Picture contention. It's a fact he blames mostly on having given the movie a traditional Christmas release in an Oscar season that was three weeks shorter -- and thus more crowded -- than before.

Although the Academy hasn't decided if next year's ceremony will also be held in February, Weinstein isn't taking any chances. He and his brother, Bob, have decided to release two of their big fall movies a bit early, before the race usually heats up: J.M. Barrie's Neverland in October and Dimension/MGM's The Brothers Grimm in November. And don't be surprised if Martin Scorsese's The Aviator -- a Miramax/Warner Bros. coproduction -- joins them. (Just look at this year's roster of Best Picture nominees, four of which were released well before Christmastime, to judge whether this plan has potential.) That's not all, Weinstein says: ''In years to come you're going to see [more Oscar-caliber] movies released in the summer.''

Indeed, while the Schwarzenegger season typically includes a few high-end releases, the box office and Oscar success of Seabiscuit may give studios more incentive to release a prestige film in the summer, then mount an aggressive Oscar campaign six months later. (In the same vein, Mystic River's initial early-fall release was followed by an aggressive awards-season comeback during which the film landed a Best Picture nod -- and more than $25 million.) So this year you'll find Focus' John Irving adaptation, The Door in the Floor, hitting theaters in June, right before MGM's Cole Porter biopic, De-lovely.

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