Best pic noms have outlasted the competition

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A strange thing happened on the way to the Oscars: The usual bloated "awards-worthy" films got weeded out and a spectacular slate of nominees were chosen in their place.

"It is one of the highest-quality lineups we have seen for best picture in a long time," says Paul Webster, one of the producers of Focus Features' "Atonement." "There is no obvious film that has been 'lobbied' into the best picture group. All sustain themselves on their own merits. If I were to think about the five best English-language films of the year, they are up there."

Webster is not alone in that belief. Widespread praise has been lavished on all the nominees -- not just his own film, but also "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax), "Juno" (Fox Searchlight), "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage) and "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.).

True, there are movies whose omission is regrettable. A number of titles, including "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax), "Sweeney Todd" (DreamWorks/Paramount) and "American Gangster" (Universal), developed enough of a fan base that they seemed on the cusp of being nominated. But, by wide consensus, this year's list is about as good as it gets.

How did this happen? After many years in which well-crafted but hardly groundbreaking movies snuck into the top five, why is this year different?

Three theories might explain it.

The first is the relative absence of two players who mastered the art of scoring Oscar recognition, Bob and Harvey Weinstein. As heads of Miramax, the duo was responsible for getting more movies nominated for best picture than their studio peers. And they were astonishingly skillful at propelling slightly less than top-notch pictures into that category. Films like "Chocolat" (2000) might have been liked, but in retrospect they were hardly on a level with the Weinsteins' greatest work.

Nowhere was this skill at the Oscar game more evident than in 1999, when they staged an upset victory with "Shakespeare in Love," besting "Saving Private Ryan" in one of the most surprising finales of any Oscar ceremony.

"The Weinsteins loom over this whole process and have done so since the 1990s," Webster says.

This year, their new company, the Weinstein Co., had two entries that stood a real shot, "The Great Debaters" and "I'm Not There," but on the whole they have been nowhere near as forceful an Oscar presence as in the past.

A second factor is that the other specialty labels have learned from the Weinsteins and are now much more clever at creating their own Oscar campaigns.

"More people are getting better at it," says Jennifer Fox, a producer of "Michael Clayton. "I've worked with a few different people who at one time or another worked with the Weinsteins, and maybe because those people went their separate ways after the breakup (when the Weinsteins left Miramax), it gave them the opportunity to share that wealth of knowledge."

Others have learned lessons from the Weinstein playbook, and just how shrewdly they have done so is apparent. Two years ago, Lionsgate, with brilliant chutzpah, sent out DVDs of "Crash" to the 100,000-plus members of SAG, creating a wave of awareness that paved the way for a best picture win.

But now this sort of marketing panache can be seen across the board -- whether at Searchlight or Focus or Vantage or the new Miramax under Daniel Battsek. All these companies have become masterful at playing the Oscar game, the game they learned from Bob and Harvey.

A third theory behind this year's stellar nominees is more banal, but might have even more truth: that the Academy had fewer films to choose from.

"The big studios, or the big arms of the studios, have essentially stopped making serious movies," notes Scott Rudin, who produced "No Country" with Joel and Ethan Coen and executive produced "There Will Be Blood." "What we are looking at are two movie businesses that run alongside each other, but on parallel tracks, and never meet: the big tentpole films and these specialty-division movies, which, by nature of what they cost, end up giving serious filmmakers much more freedom to make the films they want."

A mere three or four years ago, most of the big-studio divisions were still making at least two or three midbudget movies aimed at adults each year. Not anymore. With less than a handful of exceptions -- "Sweeney Todd" and Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War" among them -- the studios have simply shifted away from such filmmaking, leaving it to their semi-autonomous specialty divisions or to the true independents.

Even "Michael Clayton," which many cite as the only big-studio release among the best picture nominees, in fact was independently made. Its $21.5 million budget came from Samuels Media.

"It was financed by Steve Samuels, and essentially Warners picked up the rights," Fox says. "International rights were sold off territory by territory by Summit Entertainment."

Two of this year's best picture nominees were almost made and distributed by the majors, but in the end they too followed the specialty route.

"Atonement" was developed and made by Universal, but the studio decided that Focus was more equipped to release it.

Similarly, "There Will Be Blood" was developed by Focus and Universal, but the studio put it in turnaround, unable to justify making an art house movie for the $50 million at which it was then budgeted. (It eventually came in at around $35 million.)

"Basically, it was at Focus as a hybrid thing between them and Universal," explains JoAnne Sellar, one of "Blood's" producers, "but they thought it was too expensive."

It is hard to blame Universal for passing. The studio simply recognized that, today, the specialty labels do this sort of movie best.

Now the question remains: Which of these specialty movies will win the Oscar? For once, nobody seems to have a definitive answer, though "No Country" enters this final stage of the race as a favorite.

All five are bunched close to one another in terms of their total nominations, with "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood" leading the pack at eight apiece, followed by "Michael Clayton" and "Atonement" with seven each and "Juno" with four.

Previous awards have just complicated the mix. The DGA nod to the Coens and SAG's recognition of the "No Country" ensemble gave a significant boost to that movie, but other awards were divided.

While "Atonement" won best drama at the Golden Globes, it failed to win any other prize there except for original score. (Indeed, no release came away with more than two Globe statuettes, the lowest in years.)

"Atonement's" chances would further seem to be weakened by the fact that its director, Joe Wright, was not nominated for an Oscar and failed to garner a DGA nomination.

As for "Clayton," it has not won any of the major awards so far for either picture or director, which might indicate that it won't win the top Oscar. By contrast, the movie's seven nominations were more than insiders expected, meaning that it is still in the running.

Also in the running is "Juno," the one comedy in the group. While its director, Jason Reitman, was neglected by the DGA and the Globes (where "Sweeney Todd" also beat the film for best comedy or musical), his movie has a stronger pull with Academy members.

"It's not (2006's) 'Little Miss Sunshine,'" says Russell Smith, one of its producers, comparing it with another comedy nominated for best picture. "It's (1994's )'Pulp Fiction.' It's a phenomenon."

If he's right, and if the Academy can overcome its long-standing aversion to rewarding comedies, "Juno" could sneak in, especially if the front-runners split the same vote. Still, smaller films without strong production values face an uphill battle, and the betting is against it.

Most insiders agree that "No Country" and "Blood" are the front-runners. Both are adored by critics and have been nominated in all the major awards to date.

But they are also dark and often-violent films, which might appeal to the same segment of the Academy's membership that leans toward art house releases -- and alienate older or middlebrow voters.

Which means this race is anybody's to call. And not even the most brilliant of the Weinstein proteges can change that.   
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