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Let the Oscar games begin

Packed screening sked gives H'wood headaches

For months, studio execs have been planning and fretting, and now their dread can officially become dismay: The awards season is here.

Every kudos season requires endless energy, but this one has folks exhausted even before it’s begun. “I want to kill myself and it’s only October,” groans one studio exec.

Film biz honchos, filmmakers, creative types and their representatives have been spending so much time talking about awards procedures — the shift in dates, the Academy crackdown on campaigns and, most crucially, the ongoing battle over screeners — that the contenders have almost become an afterthought.

Almost.

Execs at the majors say that they will double or even triple the number of screenings for each contender; it’s becoming common to sked 30 screenings for one film and one exec says his studio is averaging one screening a day for the next 10 weeks.

Events like the Hollywood Film Festival and the AFI Fest are suddenly right in the middle of campaign strategies.

Screenings and get-to-know-the-filmmaker parties have started, far earlier than usual, but in fact folk have been planting other seeds for months.

As far back as August, ads for Focus’ “Swimming Pool” featured a little box that stated “AMPAS and HFPA members: You and a guest are admitted free with your membership card.”

Miramax began screening its kudos contenders in September, and other studios have quickly followed suit.

Last year, all five of the best picture nominees opened in the final two weeks of the year. That seems unlikely this year.

Oscar ballots are being mailed Jan. 2 — a full month earlier than usual. That puts more pressure on execs with late-year openers to make sure that enough voters see their films.

And awards strategists are already nervous that, unlike last year, there are already some strong contenders.

By mid-November 2002, all five slots for best-film seemed open. This year, Universal’s “Seabiscuit” and Warner Bros.’ “Mystic River” seem like good possibilities, which could cramp the style of the films that open between now and the end of the year.

But those pics will have to work hard to maintain momentum.

There are five epics from five major studios opening within a two-month period: Disney’s “The Alamo,” Fox’s “Master and Commander,” Miramax’s “Cold Mountain,” New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings” and WB’s “The Last Samurai.”

If even two of them are best-pic worthy, the race is going to be crowded — especially when you add in other pics that have been getting buzz (DreamWorks’ “House of Sand and Fog,” Sony’s “Big Fish,” and offerings from Focus Features, Lions Gate and Sony Classics, among them) and other darkhorses from majors and indies that, in many cases, haven’t been seen but that are getting a rah-rah buildup from their distribs.

Approximately 24 wide releases will open in November and December (see separate story) and many of them have the kind of awards pedigree and positive buzz that makes everyone excited and anxious at the same time.

Most awards-hungry execs say that it’s the triple whammy that’s exhausting them.

First, because of the earlier Oscarcast (Feb. 29, a month earlier than usual), studio execs and their kudos strategists have been experimenting with new timetables. “People are trying to find their way,” says one studio exec. “The old rules don’t apply.”

Second, the Acad has issued a get-tough policy, saying it’s going to keep an eye on parties and events.

But one Academy member says, “Given these other developments, the Academy will have a harder time enforcing those rules.”

That brings up the third and biggest change this year: the apparent ban on screeners.

Talks are ongoing to solve the problem which has turned into a PR nightmare for the MPAA and the majors. The group huddled again on Oct. 16, but no changes to the ban were announced at that juncture.

In the past, the Acad member says, the mailing of screeners was the easiest way for a studio to get voters to see the pic. With that technique changed, the number of screenings and events will multiply.

And strategists will have to have to work even harder to get people out of their homes.

“There will be more screenings in a shorter amount of time,” he says, “which means you’re going to have to work even harder to build a want-to-see factor for your film.”

The ongoing battle over screeners has meant that awards strategists had to make two contingency plans: Booking lots of theaters for more screenings than usual, and making tentative plans for mailing of screeners, in case that decision is allowed.

“By the time the decision about the screeners came down, the number of screening rooms available was not that great,” says one kudos planner. “I don’t think we’ll be able to have enough screenings. It’ll be a help if films are in theaters or available for rental.”

The theater factor is another headache.

Last year, exhibitors balked at giving free admission to an endless stream of patrons who were members of some voting committee or guild that gives out prizes. This year, every studio is in huddles with exhibs over admissions, and one studio exec predicts that only a handful of folks — members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Directors Guild and one or two others, will be comp’ed.

The AFI fest, for example, long the place to view an esoteric selection of foreign fare, has in the last few years become a prime positioning opportunity for awards campaigners.

Skedded for Nov. 6-16, the Premieres section of this year’s fest just happens to feature Robert Altman’s “The Company” from Sony Pictures Classics, Disney’s “Calendar Girls,” Fox Searchlight’s “In America,” DreamWorks’ “House of Sand and Fog” and Miramax’s “The Barbarian Invasions” (Canada’s foreign-language Oscar submission).

The Hollywood Film Fest this week is showcasing “The Human Stain” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” also well-timed to kick off awards season.

Add this to a clutch of American Cinematheque special screenings as well as Q&As sponsored by BAFTA and the guilds.

But one exec says, “We’re doing a flood of screenings hoping that voters will show up, but nobody’s convinced they will. People have gotten into a habit of only going to a few screenings and I’m not sure we can break that.”

She adds that there are two levels of award-potential films: Ones that you want to see on the big screen, and those that you will see at home. The screeners took care of this latter group. Now those films fall into the “Well, I’ll see it if I can” category. Between work, family and trying to relax, the idea of going out to a screening every night seems remote.

One Oscar voter grouses, “I’m not gonna change my life because the MPAA and the studios have made it more difficult for me to exercise this privilege of voting. I want to see all the nominees, but I don’t think realistically I’m going to have time.”

Another Acad member sighs, “Look, voting is a responsibility. If you don’t have time to see the nominees, then don’t vote.”

(Pat Saperstein contributed to this report.)

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