Academy’s Oscar Mire

Open field confounds voters, fires up studios

If you thought voting in Palm Beach was a challenge, imagine trying to cast a ballot in the 2000 Oscar race.

With just six weeks left until the end of the year, there is still no front-runner. There’s not even a middle-runner.

Instead of instantly wearing the mantle of Oscar heavyweight, pics are getting retroactive consideration, as in, “Gee, I guess ‘Erin Brockovich’ was one of the best movies of the year.”

Universal, perhaps mindful of how much people can forget about a well-received film from back in March, has already started running “for your consideration” ads for “Brockovich.”

Similarly, DreamWorks hopes to jog the collective memory with its unusual Nov. 30 screening of “Gladiator” at the House of Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Director Ridley Scott will be there to help, as the invitation says, “celebrate the DVD release” of the film. The company is also sending out a lavish “Making of Gladiator” coffee table book to “press members,” ostensibly to celebrate the DVD release. (Academy rules prohibit companies from sending out random gifts to Academy members.)

The real “celebration” is about “Gladiator” being an emerging fave.

Even more strangely, none of the aspirants skedded for December release has generated buzz — partly because many are still being finished. While it has almost become a ritual for obscure pics to blossom between December and February, this year reps a new level of uncertainty.”In past years, you had an idea about what was coming out,” marvels one veteran marketing exec. “But this seems to be a year where there’s nothing to grab hold of. And I can’t ever remember that happening.”

The open field will last a few more weeks, with key titles including “Chocolat,” “Traffic,” “The Gift,” “Finding Forrester,” “Cast Away” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” skedded for release in December. It’s telling that the last of that list, in Mandarin no less, is considered a best-picture hopeful.

For the first time ever, animated features will have their own category, meaning yet another list of five that needs filling out. DreamWorks toon “Chicken Run” has a chance to be this year’s “Beauty and the Beast,” scoring a Best Picture nod on top of one in the new category.

The void where Oscar contenders should be has thrown many praiseries and studio flacks into overdrive even though the nominations are still nearly three months away. Films once viewed by their own distributors as longshots are suddenly poised for Oscar glory, prompting a scramble for campaigning and image-building.

Paramount Classics is still three weeks away from having Oscar videotape of “You Can Count on Me,” a family dramedy emerging as a sleeper contender.

Last year is remembered as a free-for-all, but a year ago at this time “American Beauty” and “The Insider” seemed like sure Best Picture nominees and “The Cider House Rules” played to acclaim in October at the AFI Fest and the ShowEast exhibitors confab.

Even ’98, noteworthy for a late surge by eventual Best Picture winner “Shakespeare in Love,” had an Oscar shoo-in by July in “Saving Private Ryan.” The other big winner that year, “Life is Beautiful,” came out in October.

This time around, in a year marked by more media consolidation, flack from D.C. politicos over marketing violence to kids, and flat box office, the question on everyone’s lips is, “Where are the movies?” Instead of “10 best” lists, some critics may just come up with six.

In keeping with the classic kudos format, here are five nominations in the category of Best Explanations For This Unprecedented Oscar Uncertainty:

  • Late-year events such as the Toronto Film Festival and even ShowEast yielded no surefire award pics.

    Toronto often serves as a launch pad for Oscar-destined pics. It certainly worked that way with “American Beauty” a year ago. But response this fall to “Almost Famous,” “Dr. T and the Women” and “Crouching Tiger” was comparatively muted.

    ShowEast, not usually thought of as a tastemaking event, actually has a heritage of stirring interest among exhibitors in eventual award pics. In 1999, “The Green Mile,” “The Cider House Rules,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “All About My Mother” and “Tumbleweeds” all screened at ShowEast and ended up as Oscar nominees.

    This time around, ShowEast screened “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Men of Honor” and “Family Man,” among others.

  • Campaigners must seek to redefine the concept of “Oscar movie.”

    With “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator” arguably the two top best-picture hopefuls, a lot is riding on whether voters can be persuaded to award a golden statue for such obviously commercial films.

    “Studios are less and less interested in making Academy-type movies,” shrugs one marketing chief.

    Indeed, major studios’ fourth-quarter slates are dominated by broad popcorn pics like “Meet the Parents,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Little Nicky,” “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Vertical Limit” and “What Women Want.”

    DreamWorks, for one, hopes the trend makes “Gladiator” more appealing. Sure, it was a summer film. And in the current climate, rewarding its alarm-tripping violent content depends on the forces of gore defeating the forces of Gore.

    But Best Picture wins for “Unforgiven,” “Braveheart” and “Forrest Gump” and nominations for “The Fugitive” and “The Sixth Sense” prove that popular summer releases can be viable contenders.

  • Vanity campaigns are mutating into full-on best-picture pushes.

    Unlike many of his A-list contemporaries, Mel Gibson has enjoyed considerable Oscar success. So the fact that two serious campaigns are being mounted for his pics should not be a surprise.

    But Sony and Paramount, respectively, believe “The Patriot” and “What Women Want” have a legitimate shot at a bushel of noms.

  • Many performances generating critical acclaim come in problematic films.

    Ellen Burstyn has drawn raves for her turn in “Requiem for a Dream,” an unrated depiction of the horrors of drug addiction that the MPAA slapped with an NC-17 rating. It’s unclear whether notoriously middlebrow Acad members will sit through the tape.

    Bjork, an Icelandic pop star, in “Dancer in the Dark” and Willem Dafoe in “Shadow of the Vampire” could encounter similar issues.

    However, since thesps themselves do the voting in the acting categories, it’s not so unusual for difficult films to get acting nods.

  • With grosses in the art-film market off 15% compared with 1999, no “Full Montys” or “Shines” are likely to enter the scene.

    The difficult times in the specialized marketplace further shift the balance toward high-profile Hollywood fare.

    While the 1990s are fondly recalled as a period when “independent” films earned Oscar acclaim, those nominees usually were pics that had piled up significant box office. A bunch of $5 million-$10 million grossers simply don’t generate a lot of heat.

    (Managing Editor Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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