Now that the screeners issue has been set in stone (if not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction), the film biz can move forward and concentrate on what’s really important in the awards season: the actual contenders.At this point, it’s not surprising that most people consider Oscar a wide-open race in most fields. The bigger question mark is how new factors — the shorter awards season and the fact that only about 4,500 Academy voters will be receiving screeners — will affect the eventual outcome of the nominations and winners. This year, there is the feeling that little has gelled and that most Oscar category races are wide open. As evidence of this year’s uncertainty, many Oscar prognosticators point to New Line’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and Miramax’s “Cold Mountain” as hot possibilities for a best-pic nom — even though neither has been screened for anyone but a handful of folk within their respective studios. Fox’s “Master and Commander,” which bowed last week, and Universal’s “Seabiscuit,” which opened during the summer, also raise an interesting question about this year’s race. After so many recent empty-headed mega-pics from the majors, these two films prove that Hollywood can create intelligent, adult fare. The reception from critics and audiences (and, yes, industry members) indicates that Academy voters might be happy to vote for such films. In the past few years, Oscar voters have included “little” pics like “The Hours,” “Gosford Park” and “In the Bedroom” among its top five. But for the first time in a decade, it’s possible that Oscar’s five best-pic contenders will all be $100 million-plus major-studio biggies — not necessarily because of the majors’ “bullying” the small guys over screeners, but because the big pics are actually good — and they have more promotional clout. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? Don’t bet any money just yet. Awards campaigns can change quickly, and a lot will happen in the year’s remaining six weeks. In any case, the good news is that everyone is beginning to get the rancor over the screener ban out of their system. Now hopefully we can just get on with the race.
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