Studios field impressive crop of prestige projects

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FOX

"The filmmakers set an incredibly high standard for themselves and managed to exceed that standard and make an immensely successful movie," says Tony Sella, co-president of domestic marketing for Fox of the studio's best Oscar hopeful, "The Simpsons Movie." The July release brought in untold sums of cash for the studio, but Sella and other executives are keen to see the creative team behind the film receive awards season kudos as well.

"The challenge was creating an experience that the TV show -- even with its amazing popularity, myriad awards and enormous cultural impact -- couldn't: Tell an animated story with huge scope and scale while creating an emotional moviegoing experience, and at the same time, have a theater full of people doubled over in laughter."

Sella is optimistic that the film could also do well at the Golden Globe Awards, in both that ceremony's animated and musical/comedy categories.

MGM

Newly revitalized MGM is in contention with its July release, the Vietnam War drama "Rescue Dawn," written and directed by Werner Herzog. The movie drew a strong critical response earlier in the year and is particularly notable for its star Christian Bale's depiction of real-life fighter pilot Dieter Dengler and supporting actor Steve Zahn's work as a fellow POW. "We have a fantastic director who is exceptionally well-regarded both within the industry and by the public," notes MGM COO Rick Sands of German auteur Herzog. "And Christian Bale and Steve Zahn's performances are very moving and believable."

NEW LINE CINEMA


After something of a quiet period following its best picture win for 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," New Line Cinema is back in contention with a slate of movies across all genres. Certainly its most joyous entry in the awards season fray is "Hairspray," produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, which is considered an especially strong contender at January's Golden Globe Awards. "'Hairspray' was such a breath of fresh air in the marketplace and so well-produced," says Chris Carlisle, New Line's newly installed president of domestic marketing. "Rarely do you have that combination of critical and commercial success."

Globe recognition might be necessary if "Hairspray" is to gain traction at the Oscars in the best picture category, but the studio is high on the chances of getting nominations for best actress for Nikki Blonsky, who stars as plucky aspiring dancer Tracy Turnblad, and for supporting actor for John Travolta, who plays Tracy's mother, Edna. "There was the genius of casting John Travolta and the amazing performance that he pulled off," Carlisle notes. "And Nikki Blonsky came out of the blue and gave a mind-blowing performance."

Several other actors from the Broadway adaptation -- which was itself adapted from director John Waters' 1988 film of the same name -- are in contention as well, including Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah. New Line also is pushing for recognition for Leslie Dixon's adapted screenplay, Marc Shaiman's score and the original song "Come so Far, Got so Far to Go," performed by Queen Latifah -- in addition to nominations for almost every major below-the-line category.

New Line is almost equally bullish on the prospects for another ambitious adaptation -- director Chris Weitz's "The Golden Compass," a film based on the first installment in author Philip Pullman's celebrated "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Although the film had not been screened for the industry at press time, Carlisle was optimistic "Compass" might earn attention in every major category including best picture, director and adapted screenplay; best actress for Dakota Blue Richards; and supporting nods for Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman.

"Obviously, with any movie that has 1,500 effects shots, it is a process," Carlisle says. "But I have seen it several times over the past couple of weeks, and it is really going to work great. It is a great story and will hopefully open up a whole series of movies."

Two more conventional dramas round out the slate. South African filmmaker Gavin Hood -- who took home the best foreign-language Oscar for his previous film, 2005's "Tsotsi" -- is in contention with the political thriller "Rendition," starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and breakout supporting actor Omar Metwally. Writer Kelley Sane is also in the running for original screenplay.

"Gavin Hood has done a great job with this picture," Carlisle says. "He is a big talent, and the result was a really good movie that is entertaining and also about something -- an issue that is continually growing in importance."

Politics don't play much of a part in Mike Newell's "Love in the Time of Cholera," the big-screen mounting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's landmark novel about a love triangle that spans the ages. But Carisle is still upbeat about the prospects for the film, which New Line is releasing but was produced independently. "It is a terrific love story from a very, very popular book," he says.

In contention are director Newell, lead actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno, supporting actress Fernanda Montenegro and Javier Bardem, who's also earning spectacular notices this year for his performance in Miramax's Coen brothers film "No Country for Old Men." Scribe Ronald Harwood also is working overtime in the adapted screenplay race -- he penned the script for "Cholera" and for Miramax's other entry, Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Fortunately, there are no limits on how many nominations a writer can receive in either the adapted or original screenplay categories.

Finally, New Line is hopeful about the Roger Waters original song, "Hello (I Love You)" which was featured in the March release "The Last Mimzy."

PARAMOUNT/DREAMWORKS

Serial murderers aren't exactly traditional Oscar darlings, but Paramount and DreamWorks might be changing that perception very, very soon. DreamWorks' co-production with Warner Bros. of Tim Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," with Johnny Depp in the lead, is one of the most highly anticipated projects of the year, while Paramount's March release "Zodiac" from director David Fincher was hailed by critics as the filmmaker's most accomplished work to date.

Gerry Rich, president of worldwide marketing for Paramount Pictures, says "Sweeney Todd" definitely lives up to any expectations. "I have seen the movie now and to me it is the perfect combination of source material, star and director," Rich says. "It is an incredibly original film on every level and a great adaptation of Sondheim's masterwork. Johnny Depp proves again he is the one actor who can do it all. Wait till you hear him sing."

The movie also might gain recognition for its adapted screenplay by John Logan and for almost any of the actors -- a veritable who's who of British talent: Helena Bonham Carter in the lead actress category; and Sacha Baron Cohen, Laura Michelle Kelly, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall in the supporting categories. The only bad news is that "Sweeney Todd's" celebrated score is not eligible for an Academy Award, as it is not an original movie composition.

As for "Zodiac," Rich says, "It is David Fincher's masterpiece and is meticulously done on every level. It is one of the best films of the year, handicapped by the fact that it was released in March."

Reminding voters about the films released earlier in the year is always a challenge, but Rich feels confident that Gyllenhaal, who will be front and center for New Line's October release "Rendition," will be in contention for his leading role in Fincher's film, as will his co-star Mark Ruffalo (who also is starring in an October release, Focus Features' "Reservation Road"). But insiders suggest that the film's best chances for a nomination lie with Robert Downey Jr.'s supporting turn and veteran David Shire's score.

What is much harder to predict is the Academy's response to Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf." The studio is hoping that the groundbreaking project will compete for best picture and for best animated picture, despite rules changes that might bar it from consideration in the latter race. "Zemeckis is one of the most innovative, compelling directors of our time," Rich says. "This is going to be a revelatory film with stunning visual effects and incredible storytelling. It will be the biggest 3-D opening of all time."

Boxoffice prospects aside, the film -- another joint venture with Warners -- could earn nominations for Zemeckis' longtime collaborator Alan Silvestri, who wrote the score on his own and an original song, "A Hero Comes Home," with collaborator Glen Ballard. Screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman also could be in the running in the screenplay race for their work adapting the epic poem.

Two previous best actress Oscar winners could return to the category if Rich has his way. Halle Berry stars opposite another Oscar veteran, Benicio Del Toro, in "Things We Lost in the Fire," the English-language directing debut of Danish helmer Susanne Bier. "Susanne Bier has done a stunning job," Rich says. "It was a tremendous collaboration between her and (producer) Sam Mendes. The film takes your breath away."

Hilary Swank might return for "Freedom Writers," written and directed by Richard LaGravenese. "She is the gold standard of actresses," says Rich, who points out that the movie has a powerful song contender, "A Dream," written by Lonnie Lynn and performed by Common.

In the technical categories, Paramount has what some perceive to be an unstoppable juggernaut in Michael Bay's "Transformers," while in the animated arena, Paramount will be touting two features from DreamWorks Animation: "Shrek the Third" and "Bee Movie." At press time, "Bee Movie" was getting a particularly strong response.

SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

In contrast to its dynamic performance at the boxoffice -- thanks to megahits like May's summer tentpole "Spider-man 3" -- Sony seems to be heading into a relatively quiet awards season (at least as far as the Oscar race is concerned). There are, of course, one or two notable exceptions: James Gray's independently produced drama "We Own the Night," which Sony acquired in May at the Festival de Cannes, is likely to generate attention not only for writer-director Gray but also for stars Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, the latter of whom appears opposite Ruffalo in "Reservation Road."

Sony also might be competitive in the animated feature sweepstakes, thanks to its summer release "Surf's Up," and in the technical categories with "Spider-man." Julie Taymor's music-driven "Across the Universe," however, might fare best at the Golden Globes in the musical/comedy category. The movie will likely be handicapped by the fact that its score comprises mainly Beatles songs.

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Now that Martin Scorsese finally has his Oscar for 2006's "The Departed," studio insiders at Universal are hoping that this year it will be Ridley Scott's turn at the podium for his drama "American Gangster," which reunites him once again with Russell Crowe in the story of a crusading detective determined to bring down the most successful black crime boss in New York history.

This time, though, Crowe is in the supporting category; it's Denzel Washington who's being touted for his portrayal of heroin dealer Frank Lucas, as is Steven Zaillian for his adapted screenplay and veteran actress Ruby Dee for her supporting role as Lucas' mother. The film also could become a contender in many below-the-line categories.

"It's the first time in a long time we have a film set in New York during a certain era that seems absolutely authentic," says Eddie Egan, president of marketing for Universal. "That partly comes from the fact that it is a true story and also partly from Ridley Scott and his particular experiences living in New York in the 1970s. That imbues the movie with a kind of realism that is very striking."

Below-the-line could figure heavily when the Academy considers "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," but Shekhar Kapur's follow-up to 1998's best picture nominee "Elizabeth" also is quite likely to secure a best actress nomination for Cate Blanchett, who reprises her role as the Virgin Queen. Should that happen, she would become the first performer to be nominated for playing the same role in two films since Al Pacino earned nominations for his turns as Michael Corleone in 1972's "The Godfather" and 1974's "The Godfather: Part II."

"The forces seem to be lining up all over the place and putting the finger on her as a front-runner," Egan says of Blanchett, who took home a supporting actress Oscar for her depiction of Katharine Hepburn in Scorsese's 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, "The Aviator." "She is the reason the movie got made. The filmmakers would not have proceeded to do a sequel if Cate weren't front and center, and her commitment to that role was extraordinary. She is in practically every scene. There is a real evolution to her character; it absolutely looks back at what she did in the first movie and takes it to another place."

In terms of pedigree, few films (if any) this season have the kind of prestige factor associated with "Charlie Wilson's War." Tom Hanks stars as Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, a former naval office who led the U.S. into supporting major covert operations in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War. The supporting cast reads like a laundry list of acclaimed stars: Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Mike Nichols directs Aaron Sorkin's adapted screenplay.

"Mike Nichols has put together this incredible cast with some of the best dialogue heard on the screen in a long time," Egan says. "It is a deliriously adult character study about three people who couldn't be less like each other and who came together in this odd moment in history."

Although no one outside the studio had seen "War" at press time -- the film is set for a late December release -- two of Universal's summer releases also could become Oscar contenders: "The Bourne Ultimatum," Paul Greengrass' third installment in the studio's action franchise, received particularly glowing reviews and could compete in the technical categories; and "Knocked Up," Judd Apatow's hit comedy about an unlikely couple dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, could end up earning an original screenplay nomination. (The Writers Guild previously nominated Apatow for his screenplay for 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin.")

"Once in a while, a really authentic voice comes along, and people are now referring to a certain type of movie as 'a Judd Apatow comedy,'" Egan observes.

Finally, Billy Ray's spy drama, "Breach," could be in the running, particularly for star Chris Cooper's mesmerizing performance as disgraced FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union for years before being apprehended, and for the adapted screenplay, penned by Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Ray.

WALT DISNEY PICTURES

There's nothing quite like having an Oscar front-runner in at least one major category to lift an executive's spirits during awards season. Which just might explain why Mark Zoradi, president of the Disney Motion Pictures Group, is feeling so confident. Pixar's "Ratatouille" is the favorite to win the best animated feature race.

Zoradi is hoping, though, that the film's success won't be confined to a single category. He believes that "Ratatouille" director Brad Bird, who won an Oscar for best animated picture and received a screenplay nomination for 2004's "The Incredibles," could receive a nomination in the original screenplay category. Additionally, composer Michael Giacchino's score is receiving a campaign, as is his original song "Le Festin," performed by Camille.

"'Ratatouille' is one of the best-reviewed movies that I can remember," Zoradi says. "Brad Bird and the artists at Pixar have done a spectacular job. It is not only visually stunning -- the screenplay is wonderful and there is a fantastic score."

The studio will be pushing another best song contender -- "The Future Has Arrived," written by Danny Elfman and performed by the All-American Rejects from its March release "Meet the Robinsons" -- but it's really optimistic for its big Thanksgiving musical, "Enchanted," with songs by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and three-time winner Steven Schwartz.

Disney is pushing three of the six songs the duo wrote for the movie, and Zoradi also hopes that Amy Adams, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in 2005's "Junebug" will again be tapped in that category. "Amy plays the quintessential Disney princess and plays it straight and (in a way that is) so engaging," Zoradi notes. "It is the kind of movie that embodies everything Disney wants to make."

Another former best supporting actress, Juliette Binoche, stars opposite Steve Carell in Disney's comedy "Dan in Real Life," writer-director Peter Hedges' follow-up to 2003's "Pieces of April." "It really plays and shows the talent of Steve Carell, and Juliette Binoche is wonderful," Zoradi says. "It is a really smart, adult comedy."

Finally, there's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," which, with its wide scope and almost innumerable visual effects sequences, could fare quite well in the below-the-line categories.

WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Talk about your A-list roster. Oscar winners George Clooney, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Marcia Gay Harden and Jack Nicholson will be vying for attention in a slew of releases that Warner Bros. is hoping will gather Academy support.

Acclaimed screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who was hailed for his work on Universal's "Bourne" series, makes his feature directorial debut with "Michael Clayton," the story of a law firm "fixer" who uncovers corruption everywhere he turns, and the studio is hoping that the film will appeal to voters' nostalgia for the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s that it so closely resembles.

Clooney dominates almost every scene and is a likely nominee in the lead actor category -- it would be his first acting nomination since winning in the supporting category for his turn as an aging CIA agent in 2005's "Syriana." English actor Tom Wilkinson, who was nominated in the supporting category for 2001's "In the Bedroom," could again receive a nom in that category, and Tilda Swinton is likely to be a strong contender for supporting actress for her work as a corrupt corporate counsel.

"It's got everything going for it -- this great cast and a fabulous job by Tony Gilroy," says Warners distribution president Dan Fellman. "There is a special quality to it that audiences have responded to particularly well, and critics just adore this movie."

Critics were more divided over Neil Jordan's revenge film, "The Brave One," which was scripted by Roderick Taylor & Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort and stars two-time best actress Oscar winner Jodie Foster as a woman who turns vigilante after surviving a violent attack. Her co-star, Terrence Howard, also might be in the running in the supporting category for his portrayal of a detective investigating the crime. "It always seems to be a tough run for the female categories, but I think Jodie Foster has a shot," Fellman says. "She did a great job, and there was also an incredible performance by Terrence Howard."

Foster might well be competing against Marcia Gay Harden for her depiction of a woman suffering from cancer in Allison Eastwood's "Rails & Ties," which also stars Kevin Bacon, a potential nominee in the lead actor category. (Coincidentally, both performers appeared in Clint Eastwood's 2003 best picture nominee, "Mystic River.")

Bacon might have strong competition not only from Clooney, but also from Nicholson and Freeman, who are both in contention for the best actor prize for director Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List," a road trip movie centered on a pair of terminally ill older men. Reiner helped guide Nicholson to a nomination on their only previous collaboration, 1992's "A Few Good Men," and the studio is also optimistic about the picture's chances in the original screenplay race based on Justin Zackham's script and the original song category for "Say" by John Mayer.

And finally, there's Brad Pitt, who was named best actor at the Venice Film Festival for his star turn in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Warners is hoping to ride that award and is giving the movie a push in all major categories including picture, director and adapted screenplay for Andrew Dominik, and Casey Affleck in the supporting race.

Affleck has been earning solid notices for his role as Ford in the film in addition to his leading role in brother Ben's feature directorial debut, "Gone Baby Gone," which Miramax is releasing. "Both Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt have received glowing reviews for ("Assassination"), and the cinematography is incredible," Fellman says. "It's just a beautiful movie."

It's no surprise that the movie is visually stunning -- cinematographer Roger Deakins' name is attached to two other Oscar contenders this year: the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" and Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," which Warner Independent Pictures is distributing.

In the more technical arenas, Warners is giving a strong push to its boxoffice sensations "300" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" as well as the upcoming Will Smith starrer "I Am Legend." Even though it's an ultracompetitive field, Fellman says that he hopes the "Potter" cast might also get their due. "The cast is outstanding and they continue to deliver, year in and year out, and they should be recognized," he says.   
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