Will December be too late to open award hopefuls next year?

This article was corrected on Feb. 18, 2003.

Usually, the Academy Awards best-film race contains three or four December openers, but all five of the current best-picture contenders opened in the last two weeks of the year. No wonder there’s confusion among kudo strategists.

With the 2004 Academy Awards scheduled a month earlier than usual, planners face a dilemma: Is a December launch necessary, to keep a film fresh in the minds of the voters — or is it anathema, because there won’t be enough time for voters to see their film?

“Chicago,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Hours,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “The Pianist” all bowed after Dec. 18. But it’s not clear if the timing of such launches will prove the rule or the exception.

Oscar campaigning is like comedy: It’s all in the timing. Studio execs have to manufacture and maintain momentum. They have to keep the film in voters’ eyes long enough to build word-of-mouth, but not so long that there’s time for a backlash (the inevitable “Eh, it wasn’t that great” syndrome).

As if Oscar campaigners don’t have enough headaches, there’s always the question of a director’s deadlines. It’s hard to plan a launch when there’s a chance a helmer — such as Martin Scorsese with “Gangs” — wants more time to fine-tune his pic.

Here’s the kudo timetable this year: Oscar noms were announced Feb. 11; voters will receive final ballots Feb. 25. The ballots are due March 18 and the 75th annual ceremonies will be held five days later.

Next year, the 76th rites will be held Feb. 29. Execs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences haven’t finalized the rest of the schedule, but presumably everything will be moved up — ballots could go out as early as Jan. 2.

One awards strategist predicts, “We’ll see more activity in November. Smaller films will have to open earlier. You can’t send out a screener of a small film in December and expect it to be seen.”

The revised Oscar schedule may not be a problem for every film.

“It all depends on scope of the picture,” adds another campaigner. “Could the earlier deadline work with something like ‘The Lord of the Rings’? Sure. Would it work for a film like ‘The Pianist’? I don’t know.”

Like everyone else, awards voters will rush to see a blockbuster, no matter what the timeframe. This year, several studios have already announced December dates for biggies, such as Warner Bros.’ Tom Cruise-starrer “Last Samurai” on Dec. 5, New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” Dec. 17 and Miramax’s “Cold Mountain” on Dec. 25.

“But,” cautions one strategist, “an accelerated schedule is going to hurt films like ‘In the Bedroom,’ which require buzz and word-of-mouth. Some films need three weeks of people talking about it, telling each other they gotta see it.”

Another studio exec agrees. “Tentpole releases can always stake their grounds, but some distributors are going to have to re-evaluate their distribution plans.”

Awards strategists have an additional factor to consider: Christmas vacation. If a film opens Dec. 26 and ballots are due a week later, can even tentpoles be assured that voters will be in town to appreciate their greatness?

This year, films such as Miramax’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence” may not have been seen by enough voters to get the Oscar attention it deserved. On the other hand, early-year pics like Universal’s “About a Boy” and IFC’s “Y tu Mama Tambien” may have been upstaged by the late rush of big pics.

That’s why December is so crucial and so precarious. For the first 10 months of 2002, pundits talked about the Oscar chances of a few films like DreamWorks/Fox’s “Road to Perdition.”

But Oscar speculation didn’t really shift into high gear until the early November release of Focus Features’ “Far From Heaven” (which nabbed four noms and proved a favorite in critics’ awards). Within weeks, a flood of kudos contenders opened.

Some indie distribs this year hoped to duplicate the success of Lions Gate’s 2001 pic “Monster’s Ball,” which opened at Christmastime 2001 and slowly built awards momentum through mid-March.

This year, platform bows of indie pics like “Evelyn,” “Max,” “Roger Dodger,” “Secretary” and “Sonny” weren’t able to catch fire. And one of the reasons was the glut of late-year goodies.

Every year, the November-December slate is crowded, but there are usually a lot of highly touted pics that turn out to be duds. This year, 10-12 pics, repping every studio, proved to be potential Oscar competitors; in a weaker year, many of these would have been shoo-ins for more Acad attention.

The flood of late-year contenders threw the Oscar race into confusion. By mid-January, Oscar pundits couldn’t safely predict three or four best picture front-runners, because so many voters hadn’t seen all the possibilities.

And there’s the rub. Anyone hoping to imitate the Oscar success of this year’s Big Five is going to have to think hard about the efficiency of such a move.

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