With noms in, studios enter home stretch

When Academy Award nominations were announced Feb. 12, some people in Hollywood breathed a sigh of relief; some shed tears of rejection. And a lot of people clenched their jaws.

Marketers and distribs want to capitalize on Oscar attention at the box office; campaigners now have a narrower field of candidates, and a clearer mandate on how to handle them. Their work, which had been in high gear, now shifts into overdrive.

The post-nom frenzy is an annual event, but this year the stakes are potentially higher, and the odds even wackier.

Traditional thinking would make New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” to be the favorite for the best pic prize: the film with the most noms has won the top award in 18 of the last 20 years. But reps at rival studios are convinced that this is the year for an upset.

Many feel that Universal/DreamWorks’ “A Beautiful Mind,” Miramax’s “In the Bedroom” and USA Films’ “Gosford Park” represent a more traditional type of best pic that the Academy wants to recognize.

And the Baz Luhrmann fans (and they are many and vocal), incensed at his omission in the director race, are more convinced than ever that Twentieth Century Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” deserves to win.

A challenge for “Rings”: No fantasy film has ever won. But the film can’t be discounted. It has the size, the scope, the technicals and the seriousness of theme that voters embrace; look at last year’s “Gladiator.” On the other hand, in 1981 “Reds” won 12 noms, and “On Golden Pond” won 10. It was a battle between a big epic and a small drama. But the best pic award went to “Chariots of Fire,” which had seven noms.

Everyone wants to win an Academy Award, but all eyes are on the one prize: best picture not only means Academy history, but also big bucks at the box office.

No matter who wins, the Oscar noms are fascinating. Hollywood majors are famous for playing it safe, for greenlighting remakes, sequels and formulaic star vehicles. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences this year has rewarded some of the riskiest projects imaginable.

Skeptics were aghast at “Rings”: Two mega-budget sequels in production before the first has proven whether audiences care. “Moulin Rouge” was a huge artistic gamble: Luhrmann wanted to not only revive the moribund genre of musicals, but to reinvent it; and to top it off, he was offering a period musical with anachronistic songs and two stars who were not exactly known for their musical ability.

After Robert Altman’s track record (anyone see “Dr. T and the Women”?), the idea of another ensemble film, mixing a comedy of manors with a murder mystery — sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Some have claimed that “A Beautiful Mind” is low-risk. But this criticism comes after the fact. A drama about a schizophrenic math genius is not an easy sell, especially one that’s a period piece and that comes from some men whose most recent credit was “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“In the Bedroom” is possibly the lowest risk. Its budget was about $2 million — what’s to lose? On the other hand, any indie filmmaker will tell you how hard it is to get a film made, especially with a first-time writer-director and without a catchy marketing hook.

So now Oscar voters have made their choices. And studios are anxious to take advantage.

Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein wasted no time in announcing that “Bedroom” would expand from 700 screens to 1,000. He says Miramax has the film “in a number of territories overseas.” The film will broaden soon in such areas as England, Australia and Latin America

USA chairman Scott Greenstein notes that “Gosford Park” is on 800 screens domestically and continues to widen. And the film’s Feb. 10 screening at the Berlin Fest, along with all the Oscar attention, should help it considerably overseas.

Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate said the twin noms for “Monster’s Ball” (for lead actress and original screenplay) are “definitely going to open up a lot of doors for the pic,” both in domestic and overseas distribution. The pic was an in-house production, so Lions Gate retains overseas rights.

Domestically, it widened on Feb. 15 from 342 screens to 470. And it adds 100 more on Feb. 22. “We timed it all to the recognition we were hoping for,” Ortenberg says.

Some other observations about the nominations for the 2001 Oscars:

n Throughout the long nominations period, there was the frequent complaint that so few good films were released in ’01, but that’s heard every year. Some films gain appreciation with time and it’s possible even the naysayers will learn to appreciate “Moulin Rouge” and “A.I.” And it was a great year for foreign films, with 51 submissions. Candidates that didn’t make the finals included Austria’s “The Piano Teacher,” Brazil’s “Behind the Sun,” Colombia’s “Our Lady of the Assassins,” Denmark’s “Italian for Beginners,” Iran’s “Baran,” Italy’s “The Son’s Room,” Mexico’s “Violet Perfume (Nobody Hears You),” Slovenia’s “Bread and Milk,” Sweden’s “Jalla! Jalla!” Switzerland’s “In Praise of Love.”

n It may surprise some that there are discrepancies between the guild voting and the Academy. In fact, given the different memberships, it’s surprising that there is this much overlap. In the Directors Guild noms, for example, are voted on by 12,000 guild members, including TV helmers, floor managers and a.d.’s. The Academy’s noms are made by 364 members, all of whom are feature film directors.

Every year, some pundit writes, “apparently the film directed itself.” This is in reaction to the fact that the best pic and best director nominees are not five-for-five. But they rarely are. Instead, directors nominate directors, actors nominate actors, writers nominate writers, and so on. Meanwhile, everyone votes for best picture. That’s why not only do director and picture discrepancies exist, but also writer-picture (“In the Bedroom” got neither a directing nor writing nom) and acting-picture differences (Ian McKellen was the only member of the “Lord of the Rings” ensemble to be nominated, in the supporting actor category).

n Finally, it’s the year of the Antipodes. For decades, the only actor from Down Under known to Hollywood was Chips Rafferty. Then there was a surge of Aussie films in the late 1970s, with Gillian Armstrong, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, and stars like Mel Gibson and Judy Davis. There has been a steady stream since then, but Aussies and Kiwis came into their own this year. It’s significant that the three films with the most Oscar noms — “Rings,” “Rouge” and “Mind” — feature significant contributions from Down Under, behind or in front of the camera.

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