OPEN SEASON

Crosscurrents buffet studios

Awards season can sometimes feel like Thanksgiving dinner: It brings people together, but it's fraught with competing allegiances.

This year, the campaign could feature some especially knotty entanglements. With directors increasingly detouring to other lots and a dissolved relationship between two companies, the race is shaping up as a showcase for Hollywood politics almost as much as it is a place to honor movies.

Two studios will of course be competing to share the limelight with Clint Eastwood. One Eastwood contender, "Gran Torino," comes from Warner Bros., a studio that does a lot of Clint business and thus has incentive to show him support. That partly explains why the studio has taken out best picture ads even before most voters have seen the movie.

But it doesn't end there. Eastwood's other film, "Changeling," comes from Universal, where he doesn't typically work. But the studio won't shortchange the film — it comes from Universal uber-producer Imagine, which the studio also has an interest in keeping happy. And if that's not complicated enough, Universal has to balance its "Changeling" efforts with those for another strong contender, "Frost/Nixon," which likewise is produced by — guess who — Imagine.

Across town, another plotline is developing.

Paramount has a pair of major contenders in David Fincher's romantic-fable "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and in Sam Mendes' broken-marriage drama "Revolutionary Road" (released under its Par Vantage label). Over the past week, both films have begun rolling out to voters and tastemakers.

But the movies have very different histories. "Button" was cultivated on the Paramount lot, with a director and a star (Brad Pitt) who have ongoing Par relationships. "Road" is a DreamWorks project; that studio jumpstarted it and Mendes, a director associated with DW, helmed it.

The DreamWorks-Paramount separation, then could leave Paramount in a tricky spot. Like all studios, it wants to deploy its resources on movies with the best chance to win. At the same time, it will also have to avoid any perception that it is favoring the home-grown "Button," which Warners will release overseas, over DreamWorks' "Road" (and "Road" producer Scott Rudin is sure to be watching carefully).

If "Road" demonstrates early awards potential, the problem probably won't present itself, and Par will remain firmly behind the movie. If it doesn't, there's a question: How much should Par continue spending to avoid the perception that it's throwing its support to "Button"?

And "Button," a project close to Par toppers' hearts, brings its own dilemma: If the movie meets awards expectations, great. But if it doesn't, how hard should Par keep pushing?

This would hardly be the first year that campaigns come with a corporate subplot.

In 1994, Disney's "The Lion King" was feted with four nominations (and heaps of boxoffice) even though its champion, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had left the studio and was both revving up rival DreamWorks and prepping a lawsuit against Disney, proving vindication for the exec.

With its many cross-currents, awards season can be tricky even in a stable, two-parent situation. When divorce enters the picture, it can make for one long holiday dinner.
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