Is awards race wide open or just short of contenders?

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Awards assumptions: Just as people differ over whether a glass is half full or half empty, you can say this year's awards race is seriously short of contenders or that it's really wide open.

No matter how optimistic or pessimistic one is about what could happen between now and early January when Academy members must nominate five potential best pictures, it's clear that many pre-season assumptions that Hollywood handicappers made based on films' elements have not held up. Unfortunately, as films that looked like potential best picture contenders have opened this fall they've been shot down by critics and shunned by moviegoers. The result has got to be depressing for awards marketers whose high hopes for these titles are now in the deep freeze.

"Two or three months ago (one awards oriented Web site) published a list of like 40 movies that looked like they were of award-winning caliber," one awards voter told me last weekend. "Their pedigree was phenomenal. The content, the filmmakers and the actors (were all very promising). And, you know, I've seen every one except for 'Dreamgirls' and there's not one that stands out. It's going to be a really difficult year (to make nominations)."

That view may be overly negative since there are a few titles in the marketplace that have managed to perform quite well with both critics and audiences. Miramax's "The Queen," for instance, has been expanding very nicely over the past five weeks. Last weekend it added 53 theaters for a total of 152, grossing $1.9 million and bringing its cume to $6.3 million. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com is a very fresh 97%. That critical acclaim plus its good boxoffice performance could translate into best picture nominations for Golden Globes (as best picture - drama) and Oscars. It's also got excellent prospects for such other prime nominations as best director (Stephen Frears), actress Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II), original screenplay (Peter Morgan) and supporting actor (Michael Sheen as Tony Blair).

Warner Bros.' "The Departed" is another good bet at this early point to be a best picture contender. Its 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com reflects the critics' support for director Martin Scorsese. Moviegoers have been voting at the boxoffice for the past four weeks, spending $9.8 million on tickets to "The Departed" last weekend, a drop of only 27%. That brought its cume to $91.1 million and points to a bright future that could see it do $150 million. Its principal stars -- Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson -- are all potential awards contenders (although WB will have to sort out how to position them for lead and supporting consideration so they don't cancel each other out).

Scorsese is a likely best director nominee and this could turn out to be his year. Despite being nominated by Academy members five times over the years for best director (for "Raging Bull" in 1981, "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1989, "Goodfellas" in 1991, "Gangs of New York" in 2003 and "The Aviator" in 2005), he's never taken home an Oscar. Nor has he managed to score with the Directors Guild of America, despite six nominations (for "Taxi Driver" in 1977, "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "The Age of Innocence" in 1994, "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator"). He does, however, have a Golden Globe, which he won for directing "Gangs of New York." Scorsese's also been a Globe nominee for directing "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "The Age of Innocence," "Casino" in 1996 and "The Aviator."

So the combination of Scorsese's combined critical and boxoffice success with "The Departed" -- a film that before it opened was generating more buzz for its commercial potential than for its likely awards strength -- plus his long years of struggle as a nominee in the awards trenches could pay off in this lean on competition awards race.

Paramount and DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" is a complicated situation in which there's been less boxoffice action than hoped for, but strong critical support. The Clint Eastwood film opened Oct. 20 to $10.2 million at 1,876 theaters ($5,461 per theater) and its $20 million-plus cume is continuing to grow. "Flags" received a fresh 73% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

With high-profile filmmakers like Eastwood (a best director Oscar winner for "Million Dollar Baby" and "Unforgiven," both of which won best picture Oscars) and screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. (an Oscar nominee for co-writing "Apollo 13") and Paul Haggis (an Oscar nominee for writing Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and an Oscar winner for writing "Crash," last year's best picture winner, for which Haggis was a best director nominee), there's no question that "Flags" is going to receive serious awards consideration. It would, however, clearly have benefited from having a stronger boxoffice showing.

Paramount has another potential shot at serious awards consideration in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which opened Aug. 9 to a solid $18.7 million at 2,957 theaters ($6,334 per theater) and went on to gross over $70 million domestically. It also connected with critics, scoring a 70 fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Stone, of course, is a two-time best director Oscar winner (for "Platoon" in 1987 and for "Born on the Fourth of July" in 1989) and won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for "Midnight Express" in 1979. Like Eastwood, Stone is the sort of high-profile filmmaker that tends to get careful consideration from awards voters across the board.

Paramount Vantage saw its drama "Babel" get off to an enviable start last weekend on both the boxoffice and critical fronts. "Babel" arrived to about $389,000 at seven theaters ($55,622 per theater) and scored a 74 fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who won the best director award at Cannes earlier this year for "Babel," its screenplay is by Guillermo Arriaga, who won the best screenplay award at Cannes last year for "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." With "Babel" generating excitement both at the boxoffice and from the critics, it's got the magic combination that typically adds up to awards consideration.

Two ensemble cast films that surfaced much earlier this year also look like they could wind up in this year's awards races. Universal's drama "United 93" opened April 28 to a solid $11.5 million at 1,795 theaters ($6,394 per theater) and wound up grossing about $31.5 million. Its performance is very respectable for a film many people thought would have trouble finding an audience willing to risk the pain of reliving the tragic events of 9/11. Not only did "United 93" do well at the boxoffice, but it scored a very fresh 90% rating with the critics on Rotten Tomatoes.com.

Although the film's writer-director Paul Greengrass is best known for directing the thriller "The Bourne Supremacy," his credits also include the critically acclaimed drama "Bloody Sunday" about the 1972 civil rights march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in which 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot to death by British soldiers. "Bloody Sunday" was honored in 2002 with the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear award and won the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance while Greengrass was named Best Director at the British Independent Film Awards.

Fox Searchlight's dark comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" got off to a great start July 26, opening to about $371,000 at seven theaters ($52,999 per theater). When it went wide Aug. 18 it grossed $5.6 million at 691 theaters ($8,119 per theater). Its cume to date is about $58 million. "Sunshine" was also a critical favorite, scoring a very fresh 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, "Sunshine" has an ensemble cast that includes such stars as Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin and Toni Collette.

Arkin, in particular, is seen as having a promising shot at best supporting actor consideration. Arkin's acting career stretches back to 1957 (an appearance in "Calypso Heat Wave") and includes some 86 movies. In all those years, Academy members have only nominated him twice and both times were very early in his career -- for best actor in 1967 for "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" (for which he won the Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy) and for best actor in 1969 for "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." His much acclaimed performance in "Sunshine" would give Oscar voters a chance to recognize his talent at this late stage of his career.

What's worked against many would-be nominees this fall is that they don't have the combination of reviews and grosses working for them. Many hopefuls have been met with a one-two punch of critical and moviegoer diffidence. Others arrived to decent reviews, but weren't able to find their audience. Here's a look at how some of the films that were being talked about as potential contenders have fared with critics and moviegoers:

There were high hopes for Sony's "All the King's Men," but when it arrived Sept. 22 the results were disappointing on all fronts. On paper, it had a lot going for it -- writer-director Steven Zaillian is an Oscar and Golden Globe winner for writing "Schindler's List" and an Oscar nominee for writing "Awakenings" and co-writing "Gangs of New York." It stars Sean Penn as Willie Stark, the role for which Broderick Crawford won the best actor Oscar in 1950 in the original production of "Men" that also won Oscars for best picture and supporting actress (Mercedes McCambridge). Unfortunately, the remake fizzled with the critics, scoring a truly rotten 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its opening weekend gross put it in seventh place with just $3.7 million at 1,514 theaters ($2,426 per theater). As of Oct. 15, its cume was $7.2 million, well short of the level of success it takes to justify an awards campaign these days.

Focus Features' "Hollywoodland" is a more complicated situation. Although it arrived Sept. 8 to a 68% fresh rating with the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it didn't connect with moviegoers, placing second with $5.9 million at 1,548 theaters ($3,828 per theater). It went on to gross about $15 million. On the other hand, the picture generated major attention for Ben Affleck's comeback performance as George Reeves, TV's original Superman in the late '50s. Affleck was honored Sept. 9 as best actor at the Venice Film Festival. That recognition plus his generally good reviews could help put him into the best actor Oscar race, but the film is unlikely to be a best picture contender.

Universal's "The Black Dahlia" was a potential awards contender on paper thanks to director Brian DePalma, a Golden Lion nominee at the Venice Film Festival. The film's cast includes Hilary Swank, a two-time Oscar and Golden Globe best actress winner (for "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby") and Scarlett Johanson, a four-time Golden Globe nominee (for "Lost in Translation," "Girl With a Peal Earring," "Match Point" and "A Love Song For Bobby Long"). Unfortunately, "Dahlia" arrived to a 35% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its opening weekend gross put it in second place with a so-so $10 million at 2,226 theaters ($4,495 per theater). Its cume of about $22.5 million isn't enough to make it a best picture contender.

Sony's "Marie Antoinette" was another likely awards contender prior to its arrival. It ran into problems when it was booed at the Cannes Film Festival last May by a mostly French audience that apparently still hated the decapitated Queen and expressed itself by booing Sofia Coppola's movie. Given Coppola's success with "Lost In Translation," for which she won the best original screenplay Oscar in 2004 and which was also honored with Oscar nods for best picture and best director, there were high hopes for her new film. Of course, the headlines out of Cannes about the film having been booed hurt it with critics and moviegoers when it opened domestically Oct. 20 to $5.4 million at 859 theaters ($6,241 per theater). It's only grossed about $10 million to date. "Marie" did poorly with the critics, scoring a rotten 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Focus Features' opening of "Catch a Fire" last weekend arrived to a very disappointing $2 million at 1,306 theaters ($1,552 per theater) but scored a fresh 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Phillip Noyce-directed drama isn't likely to be a best picture contender, but it could have a shot at awards consideration for Derek Luke's performance as real life South African hero Patrick Chamusso. Luke was honored by the National Board of Review for Best Breakthrough Performance for his role in Denzel Washington's "Antwone Fisher," for which he also won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead in 2003.

At this point, Paramount and DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" is in the most enviable position of all because it hasn't opened yet. Moreover, aside from 20 minutes of footage that was shown at Cannes, it really hasn't been seen (other than by Paramount marketing people who swear it's sensational and promise that they're really not just saying that). Here, too, there's a strong filmmaker pedigree that should help make this a top contender for Oscars, Globes and everything else that's up for grabs this year. It's a likely best picture nominee, but should also surface in other key races for directing, writing and acting.

Directed by Bill Condon (an Oscar winner for writing the adapted screenplay for "Gods and Monsters" and an Oscar nominee for writing the adapted screenplay for best picture Oscar winner "Chicago"), it was adapted to the screen by Condon from the Tony Award winning Broadway musical. It's got a superstar cast, as well, in Jamie Foxx (a best actor Oscar winner for "Ray"), Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and "American Idol" finalist Jennifer Hudson in her feature film debut.

"Dreamgirls" has the advantage of not arriving in theaters until Dec. 15 (in New York and L.A., after which it goes wide Dec. 25). A very good sign that the studio knows it's got a strong contender on its hands in "Dreamgirls" is that it's going to screen it Nov. 15, a month before it opens, and recently sent out save-the-date cards to media people who at this time of the year find themselves committed to screenings night after night and need to plan ahead. If you're on the list, by the way, don't forget to show up early that night. It's a safe bet this is one screening that's going to be packed!

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 3, 1988's column: "The old line about how they should have released the party instead of the picture doesn't apply to 20th Century Fox's new comedy 'Big' and the big party Fox threw Tuesday night at the studio to celebrate it. Both the film and the party prompted great enthusiasm from insiders and the prevailing view is that Fox should release the party as well as the film!

"'Big,' which stars Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins and was directed by Penny Marshall and produced by James L. Brooks and Robert Greenhut, opens today at 1,132 screens. In making the rounds at Fox's party -- an outdoor carnival in keeping with the movie, with stalls serving everything from Mexican food to pizza to dim sum to frozen yogurt, etc. -- there was genuine excitement about the picture.

"Moreover, many of those on hand observed that by throwing what has to rank as one of Hollywood's biggest and best parties in a long time, Fox was making the statement that it's very much in the movie business. Although Fox's corporate parent has become very visible via its new television network, 'Big' and its party served as a reminder that Fox is still a force in Hollywood."

Update: "Big" turned out to be a very big success for Fox. After opening June 3, 1988 to $8.2 million at 1,132 theaters ($7,258 per theater) it went on to gross nearly $115 million in domestic theaters, making it the year's fourth biggest film. It also did nearly $37 million in international theaters, giving it a worldwide cume of nearly $152 million.

"Big" was Tom Hanks' first film to gross more than $100 million domestically and came at a time when his career was just starting to take shape. "Dragnet," the movie Hanks starred in prior to "Big," had done only a so-so $57.4 million in 1987, but that was huge compared to 1986's "Every Time We Say Goodbye," which only grossed about $0.3 million. Hanks also starred in 1986 in "Nothing in Common," which grossed a soft $32.3 million.

Although "Big" definitely showed Hanks' boxoffice potential, it took a while for him to really evolve into the superstar he is today. Seven films after "Big" he finally hit another boxoffice homerun with "A League of Their Own," also directed by Penny Marshall, which grossed $107.5 million in 1992. A year later he starred in Nora Ephron's hit "Sleepless in Seattle," which grossed $126.7 million. The rest -- including 1994's Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump," which grossed $329.7 million -- as they say is history.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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