'Christmas crunch will not change,' sez NL's Schwartz

If this year’s Oscar campaign seemed to drag a bit, get ready for the TiVo version.

The attenuated 2003-04 season will culminate with a Feb. 29 kudofest, nearly a month earlier than its longtime roost in late March. Not since 1942 have the the Academy Awards taken place in February.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences board moved up the date in large part to keep other award shows from encroaching on Oscar’s red carpet.

But industry vets are split about what the more compact schedule will mean for the ever-evolving rhythms of campaigning.

Some foresee a major shift, with November becoming the new December, festivals like Toronto and Venice gaining prominence and events like the Golden Globes basking in Oscar’s spotlight.

“It is a sea change for a show as elaborate as it has become,” says Acad spokesman John Pavlik.

Others predict the status quo will hold, with smaller films bearing most of the burden of compressed ballot turnaround. The main ripple they see is that smaller-scale December releases like “The Pianist” or “Talk to Her” might have a tougher time making the cut.

“I don’t see a big change except for saving four weeks of advertising,” says Russell Schwartz, head of domestic marketing for New Line. “The Christmas crunch will not change. You just may have a few smaller movies going into November.”

Regardless of their opinions, campaigners try assiduously to dodge the topic. Talking to people about next year’s Oscar campaign is like talking to them about next year’s tax return.

Fox is perhaps the first studio to acknowledge the accelerated timetable. In a press release signaling a new November date for Russell Crowe-Peter Weir teaming “Master and Commander,” the studio opted to play the kudos card.

“November is the best time of year to release a motion picture that we believe has the potential to achieve the rare combination of commercial success and award recognition,” distrib prexy Bruce Snyder said in a statement.

November could become a much more popular premiere month in the New Era. This year, the five best pic nominees came out in the last two weeks of the year. The new schedule makes such a scenario unlikely.

Yet the studios have turned November into a summerlike playground that December can never be. The ’03 edition is set to feature “The Matrix Revolutions,” “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat,” “Mona Lisa Smile,” “Barbershop 2″ and “Elf,” among others. So how does awards bait fit into that theme park, especially when TV is into its November sweeps mode and Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves are hogging the latenight couches?

Skeptics of the date shift believe it could backfire on the Acad, rewarding bigger-budget fare at the expense of the little guys.

Pics like “Cold Mountain” or “Lord of the Rings” are unlikely to surrender their December bows. It’s the less obvious awards contenders who will need to plan wisely and resort to unconventional tactics: earlier screenings, earlier mailing of screeners, more Q&As.

Whether the Academy will stick to the new dates is an open question. Pavlik says the Acad board is committed to the new date for two more years. But AMPAS could reconsider if next year is too chaotic — or if TV ratings dip.

Following are some other facets of campaign season that could be affected:

  • Festivals: Venice and Toronto could get a lift, given their late-August and September positioning. Films like “American Beauty” and “The Quiet American” have used Toronto as an award-season springboard.

  • Golden Globes: Specific dates in the Oscar timetable will be set later this spring, after this year’s 75th edition. But Pavlik conjectures that noms will fall in the last week of January. If the usual Tuesday noms announcement is adhered to and the Globes gala again falls on the third Sunday in January, it could kick off a 48-hour spree of kudomania.

Oscar nomination polls will have closed by the time the Globes happen, however. So whatever splash comes at the Globes will be minimized in Oscarland, though voting for winners could potentially still be affected.

  • Critics: Every year, the choices of some critics’ groups elicit groans, but help smaller films such as “About Schmidt” and “Far From Heaven” get traction in late December and early January. What will happen when Academy members are filling out ballots just a couple of weeks, instead of a month, later? Suddenly those top 10 lists (“Morvern Callar,” anyone?) don’t seem quite so disposable.

  • BAFTAs: After successfully moving to a more high-profile pre-Oscar slot in February, the Brits decided to move up the kudocast even further, to Feb. 8, 2004. How it affects their nominations balloting has yet to be seen.

  • ShoWest: The ugly stepchild in the Oscar race actually wields a fair bit of clout, especially since Rogers & Cowan took over publicity and its status as March’s exhibitors confab gave way to sheer publicity. A move to February is under serious consideration.

In the New Oscar Era, the last thing you want to be is left behind.

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