Oscar deadline causes clutter in the arthouse market

The power of awards nominations will be put to the test today for a quartet of prestige pics — “Chicago,” “The Hours,” “Nicholas Nickleby” and “The Pianist” — that open amid a perplexing kudos season.

Though the battle at multiplexes revolves around New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and DreamWorks’ “Catch Me if You Can,” the fight in the cluttered arthouse market will draw serious attention as the year-end deadline for Academy Awards consideration looms. Scrutiny will intensify as showbizzers seek clarity as to potential frontrunners at a time when no pic has yet emerged as anything close to an obvious favorite.

Miramax’s “Chicago,” which led with eight Golden Globe noms last week, will make the biggest splash with 77 playdates in two dozen major markets. The bigscreen version of the 1975 Broadway musical, which has already received a best picture award from Gotham online critics, will be expanded to several hundred engagements on the first weekend of 2003.

Paramount’s “The Hours,” which snagged seven Globe noms, will open in 11 engagements. Based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the somber tale of three women in three eras kicked off the kudos season nearly a month ago with a best picture award from the National Board of Review.

United Artists will open “Nicholas Nickleby,” helmer Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, at four theaters in Gotham and Los Angeles. “Nicholas” has already generated some surprise heat with a Globe nom in the musical or comedy category and a win for ensemble performance by the National Board of Review.

Focus Features’ “The Pianist,” directed by Roman Polanski and based on the WWII survival story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, also opens at five Gotham and Los Angeles playdates. Thesp Adrien Brody has garnered a Globe nom for actor in a drama; “The Pianist” has also picked up pic honors from the Boston Society of Film Critics and the San Francisco Film Circle in addition to winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

“The Two Towers” and “Catch Me,” which opened Wednesday at 3,156 playdates, are expected to contend for the top spot during the weekend. New Line and DreamWorks did not release Christmas Day numbers, and distrib sources said overall B.O. was solid though not equal to the 2001 Christmas Day business when “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings” led with $11.6 million, followed by the opening day of “Ali” with $10.2 million.

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