Commentary: Where are the Oscar contenders?

There's a wide-open race but not much campaigning

Campaign confusion: What if they gave an Oscar race and nobody ran?

That might be a slight exaggeration of what's going on this awards season, but it's close enough to reality to merit discussion. Unlike past awards seasons, when front-runners emerged in the fall and distributors started to support them with early buzz campaigns, this time around everyone seems to be lying low.

What are they waiting for? It's a wide-open race this year, with no 800-pound gorilla like "Titanic" to dominate the voting. Nonetheless, awards marketers are saying privately that before they'll pull the trigger on campaigning, they want to see critical acclaim and early kudos, especially from the National Board of Review (announcing Dec. 4), Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (nominating Dec. 9), Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (voting Dec. 9), New York Film Critics Circle (voting Dec. 10) and, needless to say, Golden Globe nominations (announcing Dec. 11 at 5 a.m. PST).

Of course, wins in other critics groups' votes also will be very welcome, including those in Washington (Dec. 8), Boston (Dec. 14), Toronto (Dec. 15) and San Francisco (Dec. 15). The right combination of noms and wins in these early-December honors apparently is what it will take to get anyone to bankroll serious Oscar campaigning this season.

That being the case, the question that comes to mind is: If these early-December awards are so damn important, why doesn't anyone get out there and campaign vigorously to win them? While awards gurus do quiet lobbying behind the scenes and some distributors already have sent out DVD screeners, not much in the way of serious campaigning is taking place to reach these early awarders with whom distributors should be trying to gain traction.

What accounts for the reluctance to take full advantage of early-season awards to springboard off them into a strongly competitive position in the Oscar race? For some marketers, the problem is what they regard as the Curse of the Early Front-runner. Their argument is that if a film gets out in front too early, it's bound to run out of steam and be eclipsed by a newer flavor-of-the-month title. People who believe in this theory always talk about "Sideways" and "Brokeback Mountain," both of which did tremendously well with critics groups and at the Globes (two wins and five other noms for "Sideways"; four wins and three other noms for "Brokeback") but failed to turn their early leads into best picture Oscar wins.

In both instances, though, other factors were involved that probably hurt the films more than the fact they were front-runners. However good, touching and emotional a story as "Sideways" was, it still was too much of a comedy for Academy members to be comfortable honoring it as the year's best picture. I loved the film and hoped it would win, but I never really expected it would.

"Sideways" was the only comedy nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards honoring films released in 2004. All of the other nominees were the type of serious dramas that typically resonate with Oscar voters: "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Ray" and "Million Dollar Baby," which won. Comedy almost never stands a chance with Academy members these days, and in the end, that's what worked against "Sideways." In fact, "Sideways" struck out in four of the five categories in which it was Oscar-nominated: best picture, supporting actor, supporting actress and director. Its only win was for best adapted screenplay.

"Brokeback" certainly wasn't a comedy, but it had other big problems. As a serious drama about a gay romance, it really faced big problems when nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards honoring films released in 2005. Insiders insisted that Academy members weren't likely to embrace "Brokeback" because of its controversial love story, and that's exactly what happened. The other nominees that year also were about controversial subjects, to one extent or another, but they didn't push the envelope nearly as far as did "Brokeback": "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Munich" and "Crash," which won.

In past years, studios regarded Oscar campaigns as part of their cost of doing business with filmmakers. If you wanted the best producers, directors, writers and actors to work with you, you did whatever it took to help them win Oscars. Spending the money to make it happen was just part of the deal. Years ago you could get some of that money back because a best picture Oscar nomination could translate into a big boxoffice boost for films still playing in theaters. Indeed, a best picture win definitely boosted ticket sales.

More recently, best picture Oscar noms seem to have less of an effect on theatrical grosses. Nominees that opened earlier in the year already are on DVD by December. That, by the way, is seen by Oscar marketers as a good thing because it allows them to send out commercial DVDs that, unlike Academy screeners, are loaded with bonus features about the making of the movie. It's also cheaper to send out commercial DVDs than it is to produce Academy screeners.

Another factor reducing the theatrical value of best picture noms is the shorter window between Oscar nominations (Jan. 22) and the Oscar ceremony (Feb. 22). Before 2004, the Academy Awards took place in late March, so there was another month of playing time during which those noms had value at the boxoffice. Many people used to make a point of seeing all five nominees so they'd have a better chance of winning their office Oscar pool. Today there's less time to catch up with the nominated films, and during the past few years many of those nominees have been specialized titles that didn't even play in mid-sized markets. They came and went very quickly in only a handful of big cities.

This year there seem to be more major-studio releases with best picture Oscar potential than we've seen in a while. I wrote about this recently in a column, and if you missed it, you can read it by clicking here:

With the majors looking stronger this year than during the recent past and with fewer specialized distributors still in business -- New Line Cinema, Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures evaporated this year, and Paramount Vantage was folded into Paramount Pictures -- you'd think we'd be looking at some robust early campaigns to establish such titles as leading contenders. But that's not the case.

If you talk off the record to Oscar marketers, they say crazy things like, "We're not ready to commit to Academy campaigns until we see how many Globe nominations we get." Or, how good the reviews are. Or, how many critics groups go gaga for the film. Or, how audiences at screenings respond. In most cases, this means sitting on the sidelines until January. That, of course, isn't very smart because it allows almost no time for campaigning before Academy members have to send in their nomination ballots.

In other words, this year's strategy seems to be to let films be nominated or not be nominated on their own, and then decide about supporting those that have managed to get into the race. The calendar works mightily against such a strategy. This year, nomination ballots will be mailed Friday, Dec. 26, and are due back by 5 p.m. PST on Monday, Jan. 12.

Those ballots are likely to turn up in Academy members' mailboxes in Los Angeles on Dec. 29 or 30, and even later in New York, but that doesn't mean the voters will be there to fill them out. In many cases, they will be enjoying winter vacations in Aspen or Maui, or taking cruises or visiting their families in far-flung cities throughout the country. For many voters, their first look at the ballots will come Sunday, Jan. 4, when they return home so their kids can go back to school the next day.

With Oscar ballots due Jan. 12, most voters won't want to risk mailing them later than Friday, Jan. 9, and some will want to play it safer and mail them Jan. 8. That allows only about four days to determine how they're voting. For the handful of voters who watched all of the key contenders before going away for the holidays, that doesn't pose a problem. But for everyone else, who was way too busy to attend screenings while getting ready to escape for vacation, the name of the game is to watch the DVD screeners that piled up while they were out of town.

Now the question becomes: How many two-hour movies can one watch on DVD at home during the course of four days? The answer is probably four, and for some, it might only be three. When you're just back from being away, and you're trying to catch up at work and at home, who has enough spare time to watch two movies a night? And even if Academy members made time to look at two films daily before voting, they'd still only be able to see eight titles among maybe 60 DVD screeners sent for their consideration.

Of course, the way voters choose which screeners to watch is based on how much they've heard about those titles and how interested they are in seeing them. That's exactly why Hollywood should market films for Academy consideration before early January. By then the game is largely over, except for the highest-profile star-driven vehicles that are must-see movies for everybody. Specialized titles really need the help in breaking through the clutter and getting voters' attention.

And by the way, it's even harder for films that tell dark, depressing, gloomy tales to gain traction with voters during the holiday season, unless they're the type of high-profile picture "Million Dollar Baby" was, thanks to Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank. Lower-profile films that are downers should be out there trying to get seen by Academy voters in early December, way before the holiday spirit and eggnog arrive.

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