December glut will take a toll

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If you're a member of the media or a guild and happen to have Thursday night free, allow the consultants who plan the social calendar this time of year to suggest some options.

For starters, there's the first large-scale, Los Angeles screening of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," an event that will not only unveil the movie to expectant journalists but also offer up director David Fincher for questions.

If you're in the mood for characters aging in the more traditional direction, the first L.A. screenings of "Australia" happen Thursday, too (one in the morning, one in the evening). Hankering for some Catholic guilt? BAFTA/L.A. wants you to come to its "Doubt" event with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

And that doesn't even include the media screenings that evening for the many underdogs, from "Last Chance Harvey" to "Adam Resurrected," that are clamoring for a little awards-season love.

About the only thing more annoying than a columnist complaining about how he's not being invited to events is a columnist who complains he's being invited to too many. But there's a real problem associated with a calendar this chock-a-block: When voters are forced to choose between so many events, movies suffer.

Part of the reason for the packed schedule, of course, is the proliferation of awards-related events. If you're an Oscar consultant, the surest way to show a client you've been working is to put on an event screening. And with more consultants taking on a seemingly ever-expanding list of clients, it follows that the number of events will balloon too.

Part of the overload, though, is specific to this year. After the early flameout of so many awards movies in '07, gun-shy studios this year held back many pictures. Few Oscar contenders went to Toronto, and most hopefuls skipped September and October.

Last year, September saw the theatrical release of six bona fide contenders. In 2008, things have shifted to an insanely packed December. During a 20-day span, a dozen contenders will open, from studio extravaganzas including "Benjamin Button" and "Frost/Nixon" to specialty products such as "The Wrestler" and "Doubt" to niche fare like "Waltz With Bashir."

Some of those are limited openings, so they won't affect or be affected by the year-end boxoffice crunch. And Academy members will be offered multiple opportunities to catch up with titles between now and the Academy's Jan. 12 nominations deadline.

But the prelaunch events surrounding all these films, coupled with December's usual mad dash ahead of Globes and critics groups deadlines, make it all a little impossible. And studios, more nervous than ever about early blog reviews, already have been playing keepaway with some screenings, adding to the frenzy.

So what are the implications of all these competing events?

First, more movies may be watched on screeners and in nonevent settings; notch a disadvantage to movies that play well on the big screen or films whose likable director or star could make a personal case.

Long shots will take a hit. If a voter has to choose between that "Benjamin Button" screening and the smaller movie getting the proverbial push for "performances," guess which one he'll likely go for?

And give an edge to contenders, such as "The Visitor" and "The Dark Knight," that have played earlier in the season and already had their full moment in the sun with voters.

The message from awards consultants this year is clear: Check out our movie even if it means blowing off someone else's -- and don't even think about that holiday party.
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