Will the majors strike back this awards season?

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How quickly times change.

Just a year ago, Bob Berney, the veteran executive who was running indie label Picturehouse, was in the throes of an Academy campaign for "La Vie en Rose."

At the same time, Warner Independent was working to drum up awards buzz for "In the Valley of Elah." And New Line Cinema was even hopeful it could work its magic for "The Golden Compass," the sci-fi/fantasy starring Nicole Kidman.

Not anymore.

Today, those labels have effectively disappeared -- and so has their influence on awards season. After a decade in which indies and specialty divisions have dominated, this year the major studios are poised to reassert themselves in a big way.

"With the loss of some of the key indies, there's obviously room for the pendulum to swing more toward the majors," says David Dinerstein, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Lakeshore Entertainment.

"I wouldn't write off the indies just yet," Berney says, "but with these companies gone, it leaves some of the excitement out of the race."

Just how much excitement ultimately depends on the films themselves. But this year the studios are stepping up with arguably their best batch of contenders in quite a while.

From Universal's "Frost/Nixon" and "Changeling" to Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino" to Sony's "Seven Pounds" to Fox's "Australia" to Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," hopes are particularly high among studio awards marketers.

Even this summer's well-regarded blockbusters, like Warners' "The Dark Knight," Disney/Pixar's "WALL-E" and Paramount's "Iron Man," could garner notice, and not just in the technical categories or at the more commercial-friendly Golden Globes.

"You're going to see some of those films come along in November and December and get traction," Dinerstein says.

Take "Dark Knight." The year's highest-grossing movie is also one of the best reviewed. Awards voters are famously skeptical of comic-book fare and forgetful of films released before the fall, but Warners is planning to reposition the film for its December bow on DVD and is also planning an awards campaign for best picture and for Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, not to mention the below-the-line categories.

If all goes well, a planned January rerelease of "Dark Knight" in Imax theaters could coincide with a bevy of Oscar nominations.
   
"This could be like the year of 'Titanic,' when a high-grossing movie is also a movie the critics loved," says Tom Sherak, former 20th Century Fox executive. "If that happens, it would be good for the Academy. It would give them movies that have been seen, which always helps build the audience."

Indeed, when "Titanic" dominated the 1997-98 awards season, ratings for all the awards shows spiked. More than 55 million viewers watched in March 1998 as the film won 11 Academy Awards, including best picture.

Oscar ratings since then have trended downward, bottoming out with just over 32 million viewers in February.

But the major studios' path to awards recognition won't go unchallenged.

For one thing, money may hold them back. After the global economic crunch earlier this month, the studios -- all divisions of large corporations that saw their stocks battered -- started slashing expenses.

Insiders expect movies that are seen as borderline contenders, like Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies" (Warner Bros.), will not benefit from the multimillions the studios traditionally spend on each major campaign.

And that could leave the door open for less deep-pocketed indies and specialty divisions after all.

The remaining specialty distributors -- Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax and Focus Features, as well as the remnants of Paramount Vantage -- all have strong contenders.

So do those perennial awards-chasers at the Weinstein Co., with "The Reader," and upstarts like Overture Films, with "The Visitor."

"From our standpoint, it's business as usual here in the awards season," says David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing at Focus, which is getting early buzz for Gus Van Sant's "Milk."

Dinerstein, who has high hopes for Lakeshore's Ben Kingsley-Penelope Cruz starrer "Elegy," predicts that Searchlight's "The Wrestler" could be a big player. "It certainly is going to get a tremendous amount of attention because Mickey Rourke has done such a tremendous job," he says.

SPC is already drawing notice for Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married," especially for Anne Hathaway's performance.

"It would be great to see it get even more attention," SPC co-president Michael Barker says.

Other early indie buzz-generators include Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire"; Vantage's "Revolutionary Road" and "Defiance"; and "The Reader," although that film hadn't finished postproduction at press time.

Still, the turmoil surrounding the indie world has shifted the prestige spotlight to more mass-market movies.

"The place where things are really changed is on the second tier," says 42 West publicist Cynthia Schwartz. "You have the majors and the mini-majors. But there used to be a number of players in the next tier down -- like Picturehouse and Warner Independent. Without them, there will be fewer (indie) films contending."

The challenges for specialty pictures have been compounded by a rush of product from the majors, in part because of the increased production resulting from the run-up to last year's writers strike.

"It used to be there were pockets of time, such as right after the Oscars in March, when there was a good display period for independent movies, based on a kind of lethargy with what the studios were doing," says Megan Colligan, co-president of marketing for Paramount. "This year the studios have released major films pretty much every weekend."

Along with that, Colligan believes the studio films have simply gotten better.

"It's not just fan boys going to see 'Iron Man,' but serious people who love good acting," she says. "And when audiences come away satisfied (by big summer movies), come August and September, they don't have to swing to independent movies."

When they don't, indie distributors -- just like the majors -- reconsider their awards plans, intensely aware of the bottom line.

To execute a full campaign, "They have to fly these guys all around and get private jets; they take out ads; it's very costly," says publicist Tony Angellotti, who acts as an awards consultant to several studios. "If you are already in the hole on these pictures, you don't spend as much money."

He adds, "Some of them even pray they don't get awards attention."

The specialty retrenchment, including the folding of much of Vantage into big Paramount, has been partly the result of spending too much on awards marketing in the recent past. Even as a picture like "There Will Be Blood" won several top awards last year, the cost of the campaign was so high that other specialty divisions were influenced and are rethinking their approach.

"The studios are saying, 'We're not going to gear up the big machine and put all the effort into it to just catch little fish,' " Angellotti notes. "They're all trying to catch bigger fish."

Now, as execs like Dinerstein carry the torch, they are forced to make tough choices.

"Running an Oscar campaign is sort of like running a political campaign," he says. "You have to look at what the critics have said about the performances (and) what the audiences have responded to, and not go for an all-category type of campaign."

Still, pictures like his are not out of contention. No matter how dominant the studios might be this year, with budget cuts and other factors, the indies might rebound after all.

Adds Dinerstein, "We may not be able to spend dollar for dollar, but we certainly can be as smart."
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