The Oscar Crunch

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It's the movie industry's Super Bowl and America's favorite excuse for show-biz gambling. Oscar night, Feb. 29, is less than four weeks away, and inquiring sportsmen want to know:

A) Is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King a dead cert for Best Picture? Already the sixth all-time worldwide top-grossing film, the finale to Peter Jackson's hobbit-forming trilogy has also received plenty of critics' laurels. But to grab the big statuette, LOTR: ROTK will need to overturn a serious Academy prejudice: no flat-out fantasy film has ever nabbed the top Oscar.

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B) Can Clint Eastwood outmuscle Jackson for Best Director? Sure — in a body-building competition. On Oscar night, we'll see. Eastwood's Mystic River received a sheaf of rapturous reviews and did O.K. business. At 73, the old cowpoke might ride sentiment to take an Oscar. But he got Picture and Director statuettes for Unforgiven in 1993 and the Irving G. Thalberg Award two years later. A senior citizen can use only so many retirement gifts.

C) Oscars in February??? This year's ceremony, with host Billy Crystal, is three weeks earlier than usual. One reason: the Academy didn't want its big show to limp into view two months after the Golden Globes and the People's Choice Awards had co-opted much of Oscar's clout. Another reason: TV revenue. ABC, a major-network also-ran, wants the show that earns its highest ratings and biggest ad income to be aired during the February sweeps month.

That's fine for Disney-ABC but not for the movie industry, which used to earn extra millions by promoting favored films in the 40 days between the announcement of the nominations and the opening of the envelopes. The smaller artsy films and Oscar hopefuls released in late December could earn the majority of their box-office take in that period. "In terms of theatrical box office," says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, "the money is in the nominations, not in the award."

This year the nominations were posted two weeks earlier, and Oscar season is squeeze-boxed into 33 days. With the clock ticking at warp speed, there's a siege of migraines at swank industry boites like Morton's and The Ivy, among studio bosses and stars alike. It's a bit like the presidential primaries, which used be a contest through June. Now the race could be over by March, especially if you stumble or scream in Iowa.

Some movie mavens predict that Sean Penn's absence at the Golden Globes last week could have a crippling effect on his shot at the Best Actor Oscar for Mystic River. When Penn won the Globe for Best Actor in a drama, Eastwood, accepting the award for him, mentioned what a commendable fellow Penn is. A few days later, after his Oscar nomination was announced, the star's handlers said he would attend several industry functions.

Similarly scrambling are films made primarily as Oscar contenders. The money a Cold Mountain, say, might earn with nominations in the flashier categories is factored into the projected gross and thus, working backward, the size of the budget. The film cadged seven nominations last week, but its sponsor, Miramax, has to be disappointed that star Nicole Kidman and writer-director Anthony Minghella, both previous Oscar winners, were stiffed — not to mention the film itself, denying Miramax a Best Picture finalist for the first time in 12 years. The company's co-chairman Harvey Weinstein is still determined to find the pony in the manure. "With Cold Mountain, City of God [which got Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing nods] and The Barbarian Invasions [Foreign Language]," he insists, "this is the moment to say, All right, we're there. No one's taking those nominations away for five weeks, so we can run like demons and try to do some business on these films."

Last fall the big studios and their "independent" affiliates, such as Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight, lost an additional month when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) barred the sending out of screeners, the videos and DVDs that Oscar voters use to catch up on unseen films. Outrage ensued. One studio had some publicity material returned to it with notes reading "No screener, no vote" and "I'm only voting for independent movies."

A few smaller companies were smart and lucky. Newmarket, unencumbered by the MPAA embargo, sent Academy members screeners of Monster and Whale Rider and was rewarded with Best Actress nominations for Charlize Theron and 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes. Lions Gate flooded the membership with early screeners of Girl with a Pearl Earring (three arts-and-crafts citations) and The Cooler (a Supporting Actor nomination for Alec Baldwin).

The short lead time may make the studios rethink their bizarre habit of backloading their big movies, piling up the serioso films at year's end. The reality is a traffic jam of worthy product. With just a few weeks between New Year's Day and the nominations, movie people will have to take a chance and release their Oscar hopefuls earlier — in July, like this year's Best Picture nominee Seabiscuit, or in May, like 2001's top prizewinner, Gladiator. That way, the DVDs and videos (which account for an imposing 60% of movie revenue) would be in the stores and available to Academy voters even if the MPAA reinstates its no-screener policy next year.

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