Awards biz never out of season

Studios big and small strategize for next go-round

On Monday, barely a week after the Coen brothers won three Oscars, Focus Features made an announcement: The brothers' next movie will be released in early September.

While the comedy about mistaken identity and the CIA is not perceived as a heavy awards play, the timing of the release showed the scrutiny specialty divisions are giving the fall.

Awards experts often sit down after the Oscars to parse the season just ended. This year they're analyzing the trends even more closely as the changing demographics of the Academy, a shifting cultural and cinematic mood and a number of notable calendar patterns from last year are being considered as they — yes, already — plot their 2008 attack.

But it isn't easy.

With the topsy-turviness of this year's race (a phenomenon that's only partly the result of the strike), experts getting together their Oscar postmortem say the inferences are trickier than ever. After all, this was the year a host of movies made almost explicitly with awards in mind — from "Into the Wild" to "In the Valley of Elah" — all struck out in their bid for statues, and other early favorites like "American Gangster" came away empty-handed.

Meanwhile, filmmakers only select people believed could make a serious Oscar run — including such auteurs as the Coens or Paul Thomas Anderson and comedic directors like Jason Reitman — ran through the season as though on a toy-store shopping spree.

So what to take away as '08 gets under way? Strategists offered some lessons:

Counterprogramming works. The Oscars used to elicit jokes about the Academy's bias toward epic love stories, wars and period pieces. Many were justified. But this year you were better off with a movie that wasn't like the others — first with the trend toward so-called "darker themes" and then with movies that deviated from that. That's what allowed for a best picture nomination for a hipster comedy like "Juno." Many contenders next year are period films — such as Universal's "Frost/Nixon," Paramount Vantage's "The Duchess" and Paramount's Sam Mendes drama "Revolutionary Road" — which means a contemporary drama like Guillermo Ariaga's "The Burning Plain" or an offbeat comedy could have a leg up.

Cannes is back. Conventional thinking — and the dashed hopes of "Dreamgirls" in 2006 — had strategists thinking that you can't start a campaign at the festival and keep it going for months. But 2007 Croisette darling "No Country for Old Men" proved that with the right campaign it can be done. Look for at least one best picture candidate to emerge from France in May — if it goes to Cannes, Miramax's "Blindness" could be a breakout this year.

Early is dangerous (or, Be careful how you interpret Rule 2). Going into last season, Focus was perceived as an awards favorite with a slate of six potential contenders. Five of those movies came out before Oct. 1. The only one to land a best picture nomination? The one released in December. Studios still like September and October, but after 2007, the late sneak-in is getting more popular.

Push the unlikely. If there's one big lesson from '07, it's that voters can be partial to auteurish, even eccentric efforts. "Films (like those of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coens) that aren't necessarily traditional Academy-friendly movies," Miramax chief Daniel Battsek said, "now feel compatible with the Academy season. The paths those movies have driven through enable other films to follow in their footsteps." Could 2008 be the year for Gus Van Sant, whose biopic "Milk" will come out from Focus?

Avoid looking invincible. It's like the early candidacy of Hillary Clinton: Voters don't like if you come off as believing you deserve to win. Julie Christie looked unbeatable for best actress, but Marion Cotillard spent weeks working the Los Angeles awards circuit while Christie stayed home. Oscar voters rewarded the Frenchwoman. "I think it showed us that you can't think you have the best thing in the world," one strategist said. "You should think you have the worst thing and build it."

While some bloggers have already begun forecasting 2008, actual handicapping is a sucker's bet. Many movies haven't been finished, let alone seen. "We get into the same repetitive forecasting every year: 'Oh my god, the fall is packed; it's a very competitive year,' " Battsek said. And then you go, 'Didn't we just say that last year?' "

Still, studios have placed some early bets. Among those not previously mentioned, Fox Searchlight has "The Secret Life of Bees," while big Fox has "Australia." Focus has Van Sant's "Milk" but not Stephen Soderbergh's twin Che Guevara films "The Argentine" and "Guerilla," which Focus once was attached to but now says it isn't. Miramax has another Scott Rudin effort in "Doubt" and the remake of "Brideshead Revisited." Par Vantage has "Defiance," while Paramount has "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Directors with strong Oscar track records will have horses on the track: Mendes, Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, Baz Luhrmann, Ron Howard. And those are just the directors who've been there before. As one strategist says, "There's always the film at Toronto or the New York Film Festival that comes out of left field." Or, as this year's race shows, disappears into left field.