No awards frontrunners, but a few contenders

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Awards action: In a wide open awards season like this one, anything and everything can make a difference when it comes to winning.

The closest thing to a formula for success is that favorable reviews plus boxoffice performance plus filmmaker pedigree plus two key variables generates nominations. The variables are the quality of the movie and how much marketing money is available.

Awards marketers generally say you can manage with a little more or less of most of these elements. You can, for instance, get away with reviews that are respectable if not glowing. And you'll be OK with grosses that are decent even if they're not through the roof. Where necessary, you can always exaggerate or be selective about a filmmaker's past achievements. What you can't do anything about, however, is how good a movie is or how much money there is for campaigning.

Actually, there's no way of really saying how good a movie is because it's such a subjective thing. People have differences of opinion all the time about films and in the end there's no right or wrong answer. Mostly, a consensus emerges and we go along with that majority point of view, but it's not unusual to have situations where people are polarized about pictures. If a film has a few good and very vocal champions among the media crowd, that can be very helpful.

On the other hand, there's no question about the relationship between marketing money and awards success. You can have the best movie in the world with the best performances anyone's ever seen, but if you're not able to spend competitively to campaign for the picture, you're usually not going to wind up where you'd like to go. Yes, there will always be exceptions to this or any other rule and, yes, sometimes people get lucky, but for the most part those who go into awards action without enough cash to fuel their marketing engines probably aren't going to be happy with the results. It's a problem that clearly works against smaller films without big studio marketing budgets behind them.

At this point, there's no film that Hollywood handicappers can point to as this year's awards frontrunner. Indeed, after last year's crash-and-burn "Dreamgirls" situation, no one even wants to be called a frontrunner this early in the season. The perception among awards marketers is that "Dreamgirls" by raising expectations that it would not only be nominated for best picture but would win and sweep other awards, as well, wound up turning off Academy voters. Consequently, this year's campaigners have opted to start their efforts later in the season and are consciously trying not to be labeled frontrunners.

Nonetheless, a number of films are starting to emerge as likely contenders for prime Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. This certainly isn't a final list at this early point and it's a list that will continue to grow as more films are seen, DVD screeners are sent out and word starts circulating about their quality. For now, though, here are some early thoughts about who's likely to get into the best picture race.

After last weekend's $43.6 million opening for Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment's "American Gangster," the Ridley Scott film should be on track for best picture consideration. "Gangster's" blockbuster business -- which along with DreamWorks and Paramount's $38 million launch of "Bee Movie" reversed Hollywood's six-week fall boxoffice slump -- plus its generally favorable reviews (78% fresh on RottenTomatoes.com) and its high-profile stars and filmmakers should get it an assortment of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

There are enviable Oscar pedigrees for many of those involved in making "Gangster." Ridley Scott's a three-time Oscar and Directors Guild of America nominee -- for "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down." Producer Brian Grazer's an Oscar winner for "A Beautiful Mind" and also received Oscar nods for best picture for "Apollo 13" and for original screenplay (shared credit) for "Splash."

Screenwriter Steven Zaillian's an Oscar winner for his adapted screenplay for "Schindler's List" and also was Oscar nominated for writing "Awakenings" and "Gangs of New York."

Denzel Washington won the best supporting actor Oscar for "Glory" and the best actor Oscar for "Training Day" and also received Oscar noms for his performances in "Cry Freedom" (supporting), "Malcom X" (lead) and "The Hurricane" (lead).

Russell Crowe won the best actor Oscar for "Gladiator" and was a best actor Oscar nominee for "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind."

An early look at "Gangster" last month left me thinking it was heading for boxoffice and awards success and its strong opening certainly has me feeling good about that prediction.

"Gangster" looks to me like it's got a good shot at being one of the five best picture nominees. Who else stands to get in the race? I was at Miramax's premiere Sunday for Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" and joined in the applause for what insiders have been calling a likely best picture nominee since its screenings at film festivals in Cannes, Toronto and New York earlier this year.

With "Country" starting its limited release Friday, it's too soon to talk about ticket sales. We can start doing that early Saturday morning as estimates begin circulating. The film is expanding Nov. 16 and goes wide Nov. 21.

The "Country" filmmakers' Oscar pedigree is also very impressive. The Coens won the best original screenplay Oscar for "Fargo," which also received a best picture nomination as well as a best director nod for Joel Coen. They also were Oscar nominated for their adapted screenplay for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" With a 90% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com from the critics, "Country" could be making headlines when critics groups across the country start handing out their awards in December and it's a safe bet to surface on numerous Top 10 lists, including my own.

"Country" producer Scott Rudin was an Oscar nominee for producing (shared credit) "The Hours." Tommy Lee Jones won the best supporting actor Oscar for "The Fugitive." Javier Bardem was a best actor Oscar nominee for "Before Night Falls." Woody Harrelson was a best actor Oscar nominee for "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." Cinematographer Roger Deakins has been honored with five Oscar nods, including the Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Fargo," Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" and Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption."

Not surprisingly, Hollywood handicappers are generally keen on "Country's" awards prospects. If "Gangster" and "Country" are likely best picture nominees, that still leaves three slots to fill.

I saw another likely best picture contender Monday when Focus screened Joe Wright's "Atonement" at the Director's Guild of America theater. There's been a favorable buzz about "Atonement" going back to its well-received showings opening night at the Venice Film Festival, where Wright was a Golden Lion nominee, and at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"Atonement," a period piece epic English romantic drama, is a genre I personally enjoy and, not surprisingly, I liked it very much. It's got some strong performances going for it from Keira Knightly, a best actress Oscar nominee for "Pride & Prejudice" (which Wright directed), James McAvoy, a British Academy supporting actor nominee for "The Last King of Scotland," Romola Gari, Saoirse Ronan (who's particularly wonderful and deserves a supporting actress nom) and Vanessa Redgrave, who won the best supporting actress Oscar for "Julia" and received five additional Oscar noms. The film's adapted screenplay is by Deborah Moggach, a British Academy nominee for adapting "Pride & Prejudice."

"Atonement" doesn't go into limited release until Dec. 7, so it's way too soon to be able to talk about its reviews or boxoffice success. But its buzz is definitely building as people start to see it and it's emerging as one of the films insiders are regarding as a best picture contender.

If we add "Atonement" to our short list of "Gangster" and Country" that leaves two best picture slots up for grabs. It's very difficult at this point to do anything but throw names in the ring for films we like or think we're going to like when we get to see them. It's the kind of list that could turn out to be very long because there are quite a few pictures that have come and gone already or that are still on the horizon for which you can argue best picture potential for various reasons.

One of my very favorite films this year is Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" from THINKFilm, which looks like it's shaping up as a potential best picture contender. "Devil's" 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com reflects its critical acclaim. Last weekend's expansion from 2 to 43 theaters saw the film average a very healthy $8,617 per theater.

It always helps a film's best picture potential if its director is a likely candidate for a best directing nod. "Devil" has that advantage since Lumet, as I wrote here recently, is overdue at age 83 for a best director Oscar win. He's been nominated five times during his 50-year-long filmmaking career and has received an honorary Oscar, but hasn't ever won. To read that column click here.

Besides Lumet's Oscar noms, "Devil's" Academy pedigree also includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, a best actor winner for "Capote;" Marisa Tomei, a best supporting actress Oscar winner for "My Cousin Vinny" and a supporting actress nominee for "In the Bedroom;" Ethan Hawke, a supporting actor Oscar nominee for "Training Day" and a best adapted screenplay nominee (shared credit) for "Before Sunset;" Albert Finney, a five-time Oscar nominee for "Tom Jones" (lead), "Murder on the Orient Express" (lead), "The Dresser" (lead), "Under the Volcano" (lead) and "Erin Brockovich" (supporting); and Rosemary Harris, a supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Tom & Viv."

"Devil" wasn't one of the films that automatically turned up on insiders' awards radar before arriving in the marketplace. I think it's going to be making a lot of 10 Best Lists, including my own, and could generate some critics' awards, which could help it on the Oscar and Globes front.

Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War" is a picture that sight unseen insiders see as a potential best picture contender. As it's not opening until Dec. 25, there aren't reviews or ticket sales to evaluate at this point, but its filmmakers' Oscar pedigree is enviable. Director Mike Nichols won the best directing Oscar for "The Graduate" and was Oscar nominated for directing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?," "Silkwood" and "Working Girl" and was a best picture producer nominee (shared credit) for "The Remains of the Day."

"Charlie's" cast is led by Tom Hanks, a back-to-back best actor Oscar winner for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump" and a best actor Oscar nominee for "Big," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Cast Away;" Julia Roberts, a best actress Oscar winner for "Erin Brockovich" and an Oscar nominee for "Steel Magnolias" (supporting) and "Pretty Woman" (lead); Philip Seymour Hoffman (as noted above); Amy Adams, a best supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Junebug;" and Ned Beatty, a best supporting actor Oscar nominee for "Network" (directed, by the way by Sidney Lumet, who also was Oscar nominated).

Also upcoming and generating an early Oscar buzz is Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood," written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a best original screenplay Oscar nominee for "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." "Blood" stars Daniel Day Lewis, a best actor Oscar winner for "My Left Foot" and a best actor Oscar nominee for "In the Name of the Father" and "Gangs of New York."

Since there won't be "Blood" in theaters until Dec. 26, we can't evaluate its reviews or ticket sales yet, but Anderson is one of those directors whose work typically generates awards buzz well before it's in the marketplace.

There are, needless to say, many other hopefuls at this early point and I wouldn't want to rule any of them out yet because surprises are not only possible, but should be expected. In no particular order, here are some other films that are generating some degree of early buzz as having a shot at landing that typically up-for-grabs "fifth slot" in the best picture race:

Lionsgate's western "3:10 to Yuma" has grossed a respectable $53.4 million through last weekend and did well with critics, scoring a fresh 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Lionsgate's surprise Oscar victory with "Crash" in 2006 showed what it can do on the awards front and the buzz is that they're committed to getting "Yuma" on the same track. Director James Mangold is well regarded, but hasn't scored Oscar nominations yet. Russell Crowe has an Oscar pedigree (as noted above).

Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild" is written and directed by Sean Penn, who has a good Oscar pedigree with a best actor win for "Mystic River" and best actor noms for "I Am Sam," "Sweet and Lowdown" and "Dead Man Walking." Its boxoffice performance is a modest $10.9 million through last weekend, but driven by interest in Penn's work "Wild" is now on some insiders' awards radar and could grow as more people see it.

Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis," which doesn't open until Dec. 25, is France's official entry for consideration in Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film category. It's eligible in other categories, as well. Having won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and after being well received at screenings at Telluride and Toronto as well as Closing Night at the New York Film Festival, it could emerge as a "fifth slot" best picture contender.

Paramount's musical thriller "Sweeney Todd" isn't arriving in theaters until Dec. 21, so it's another film we can't evaluate yet in terms of reviews, grosses or how well we liked it. What it has going for it, of course, is director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp as "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Burton was Oscar nominated (shared credit) for best animated feature for "The Corpse Bride." Depp is a two-time best actor Oscar nominee for "Finding Neverland" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl." Helena Bonham Carter, who stars opposite Depp as the pie baking Mrs. Lovett, was a best actress Oscar nominee for "The Wings of the Dove." If "Sweeney" connects with the critics, that could drive it into the best picture race.

Two upcoming releases from Fox Searchlight Pictures are also generating some buzz. "The Savages," directed and written by Tamara Jenkins and starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco, opens in limited release Nov. 28. "Savages" has some Oscar pedigree with Linney, a best actress nominee for "You Can Count on Me" and a supporting actress nominee for "Kinsey;" and Hoffman (as noted above). "Juno," directed by Jason Reitman and staring Ellen Page, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, arrives Dec. 5 in New York and L.A. While "Savages" and "Juno" are both small films, they could be driven by critical acclaim.

Also on the awards horizon is The Weinstein Co.'s "The Great Debaters," opening Dec. 25, directed by Denzel Washington and starring Washington and Forest Whitaker. Here, too, there's a good Oscar pedigree for Washington (as noted above) and for Whitaker, a best actor Oscar winner for "The Last King of Scotland." If "Debaters" gets the critics' support that could translate into a year-end push by the Weinsteins, who are no strangers to generating best picture nods.

New Line Cinema has Oscar hopes for "The Golden Compass," opening Dec. 7, directed by Chris Weitz and starring Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliott. Sight unseen, it's anybody's guess if this is another "Lord of the Rings" fantasy epic type contender or not. Weitz was Oscar nominated (shared credit) for the adapted screenplay for "About a Boy." Kidman won the best actress Oscar for "The Hours" and was a best actress nominee for "Moulin Rouge."

Warner Bros. Pictures' "Michael Clayton," directed by Tony Gilroy and starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack, is a film I really enjoyed and thought would do much better than it has ($33.1 million through last weekend). Its boxoffice performance is not going to help it on the awards front, but it has other things going for it that could help. "Clayton" scored a 90% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com from the critics and it's also got some good Oscar cache.

Clooney's a best supporting actor Oscar winner for "Syriana" and a nominee for directing and for co-writing "Good Night, and Good Luck." Wilkinson's a best actor Oscar nominee for "In the Bedroom." Pollack, who's a wonderful actor, has never been Oscar nominated for his on-camera work and should be this time around. He's a best director Oscar winner for "Out of Africa," for which he also won best picture, and he was nominated for directing "Tootsie," which was a best picture nominee, and for directing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 23, 1990's column: "Any film that's still going strong at the boxoffice after opening last November must have a lot going for it. That's certainly the case with Tri-Star's 'Steel Magnolias,' which has grossed $71.3 million to date ad was still in last weekend's Top 10...

"'We always said that the best advertisement for the movie was the movie,' observes Buffy Shutt, president of marketing for Columbia/Tri-Star. 'That led us to do a lot of screenings, which led to the sneak preview plan and to (the marketing concept) 'let's show people this movie because they're going to love it.'

"The film's success stems from 'a lot of things, including the fact that it's a good movie and it plays so well,' explains Columbia/Tri-Star executive vp, marketing Kathy Jones. 'The picture, itself, ever since we first screened it, has been so satisfying to so many different kinds of people.'

"What marketing challenges did 'Magnolias' pose? 'For the people who knew the play ... it was getting them to keep an open mind that this play, which was quite loved, could be opened up and they could accept it on a feature level,' says Shutt. 'A lot of people are very protective of plays that they like.

"'Also, that it not seem like a specialized movie -- that it wasn't a small story set in a little Southern town when actually it was a small story in a Southern town with a kind of universal appeal. And it was a challenge to make sure that all (demographics of) moviegoers went to the movie.

"'I think at first blush it seemed like a movie (whose appeal) was more female -- maybe a little older female. But the thing we saw in the early screenings was that once people were there, all ages and both sexes liked the movie.'

"One key to marketing 'Magnolias' was the decision to sell it as an ensemble cast movie. 'We didn't want to bring out any one of the six ladies ahead of the others,' Shutt notes (referring to Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts) ...'

"That resulted in publicity appearances that showed the stars as an ensemble. All six actresses, for example, were booked to appear together on leading TV shows...' adds Jones."

Update: "Steel Magnolias" wound up grossing $83.8 million domestically and was 1989's 14th biggest film. Julia Roberts was a best supporting actress Oscar nominee and won the best supporting actress Golden Globe (in a race in which Sally Field was also nominated for her performance in the film).

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