Build-up, buzz and box office all factor into Oscar's grueling marathon

It finally happened. Hollywood spent an entire year in Oscar mode.

Think about it (if you dare): “The Passion of the Christ” came out four days before last year’s Oscars, on Feb. 25. Its B.O. bounty and solid tech credits prompted almost immediate speculation about its kudo fortunes. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” followed in March, and the race effectively began. We are witnessing the award-season equivalent of CNN or the 24-hour pharmacy.

Along with quality early pics, the second year of the earlier ceremony date and mounting hype from the insatiable showbiz media conspired to make this a 365-day affair.

During that long siege that will culminate on Feb. 27, plenty of onetime favorites fell off the pace, replaced by fresh hopefuls. After the tantalizing prospect of foreign-language or documentary films earning best pic honors subsided, the Academy turned to some old-fashioned crowd-pleasers to form the core of its Final Five. “Sideways,” an esteemed but hardly radical specialty pic, was the edgiest of the bunch.

Films such as “Kinsey,” “Closer,” “The Sea Inside,” “A Very Long Engagement” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” never quite seduced voters. Those who witnessed their Academy screenings — a favorite bellwether — reported less-than-electrifying response. And let’s not even get into the films that had everyone speculating eight months ago — among them “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Terminal,” “A Very Long Engagement,” “Alexander” and “Spanglish” — that didn’t fare as well as their studios had hoped.

A long and winding road, indeed. Herewith, an account of how it all unfolded, starting with select early events and then building to a week-by-week rundown in the fall and winter.

MARCH 31
USA Today runs a story headlined: “Studios already jostling for next Oscars.” It cites “Eternal,” “Passion,” “The Ladykillers” (Tom Hanks, the Coens — what could go wrong?) “We’re being careful this year to avoid the minefield of November and December,” says David Linde of Focus Features. Hmm.

MAY 12-23
Some years, films like “Elephant” or “The Son’s Room” claim Palme d’Or wins but leave Oscar prognosticators puzzled. In 2004, “Fahrenheit 9/11″ dominated world headlines with its win and was immediately deemed a heavyweight a full month before its U.S. release. Also screening at the fest were “House of Flying Daggers,” “Bad Education” and the well-traveled “Motorcycle Diaries.”

JUNE 25
In a Daily Variety column, Timothy M. Gray pronounces the race “already noteworthy” and mulls the chances of a couple dozen pics across several categories. “Of course, in any Oscar race, it depends what else is out there.”

AUG. 13
Entertainment Weekly prints its list of 10 “best bets” to be nominated for best picture.
Only two (“Finding Neverland” and “The Aviator”) make the cut. The also-rans included “Alexander” and “The Life Aquatic.”

SEPT. 9
The Toronto Film Fest opens, officially beginning screenings of pics that will be talked about during the campaign. “Ray,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “Sideways” unspool to glowing praise, while “I Heart Huckabees” finds a mixed reaction.

OCT. 3
Warner Bros. throws a ringer into the race by announcing the last-minute December release of Clint Eastwood’s fast-tracked “Million Dollar Baby,” filling already nervous rival Oscar consultants with even more anxiety. Spain disses Almodovar yet again by choosing “The Sea Inside” as it’s official Oscar submission over “Bad Education.”

OCT. 10
“Vera Drake” opens, instantly creating actress buzz for Imelda Staunton. Variety reports that foreign-lingo pics “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Bad Education” and “A Very Long Engagement” are all ineligible under Oscar foreign-language rules. Each film plots a strategy to get a picture nom instead.

OCT. 17
The screener situation is fuzzy as no major studio has cut a deal with Cinea for its supposedly pirate-proof format despite the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ endorsement. “Being Julia” opens, putting Annette Bening in the actress race.

OCT. 24
The Acad announces 49 countries will compete for foreign-language film. “Sideways” opens, winning across-the-board rave reviews and immediate Oscar talk.

OCT. 31
Tom Cruise tries to create some Oscar collateral by participating in a special UCLA talk sponsored by the American Film Institute. DreamWorks runs trade ads touting the event as “sold out” and another with a DVD attached highlighting Cruise’s career. “Kill Bill Vol. 2″ is the first screener sent to Acad members. “Ray” opens with mammoth awards buzz for Jamie Foxx. Sherry Lansing announces she won’t reup on the eve of Paramount’s dismal opening for one-time Oscar hopeful “Alfie.”

NOV. 7
Eleven films qualify to compete for the animated film Oscar. One of them, “The Incredibles,” opens to monstrous box office and talk of a rare picture nom for a toon pic. Film is dropped from campaign plans but Par is hopeful for a song nom for Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart’s “Old Habits Die Hard.” Contenders show up for the AFI Fest.

NOV. 14
Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. rules “Fahrenheit 9/11″ ineligible for its Golden Globes. DreamWorks throws a “Shrek 2″ DVD release party at Spago which helps raise the awards profile for the year’s top grosser. “Finding Neverland,” which has been sitting on the shelf two years, is finally released to boffo reviews. “Kinsey” opens to the public. Conservative groups threaten to protest and take out trade ads.

NOV. 21
Producers of “The Passion of the Christ” announce they won’t campaign for Oscar consideration but will send DVDs. Academy prexy Frank Pierson sends a letter to members announcing Cinea DVD player deal is dead. “Million Dollar Baby” is finally shown to some press on the WB lot and immediately sparks major nom talk.

NOV. 28
“Alexander,” moved from Nov. 5 to Nov. 24, opens and Oscar buzz stops. Amnesty Intl. hosts screenings of “Hotel Rwanda.” Universal announces “Ray,” after just three months in theaters, will go to DVD on Feb. 1, just as final Acad ballots are mailed.

DEC. 5
Fox Searchlight pics are nommed for 14 Independent Spirit Awards including six for “Sideways” and four for “Kinsey.” “Closer” and “House of Flying Daggers” open with strong awards talk. “The Aviator” has a splashy premiere at the Chinese in Hollywood. Kevin Spacey takes his Oscar hopes on the road, premiering a nightclub act based on the songs of Bobby Darin. “Finding Neverland” wins top pic from the National Board of Review, which also honors Foxx and Bening.

DEC. 12
“The Life Aquatic” opens but hoped-for awards buzz doesn’t surface. The L.A. and Boston film critics each choose “Sideways” as year’s best pic, while it’s also named one of AFI’s top 10, which includes “Aviator,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Incredibles.”

DEC. 19
Globe and Broadcast Critics noms are announced with “Sideways” leading both contests. “Aviator,” “Neverland” and “Million Dollar Baby” also score well. “Sideways” wins top honors from Toronto, San Francisco and New York critics groups; the Gotham group laurels Clint Eastwood for director. Washington, D.C., crix go for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” “Spanglish,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Aviator” open. While “Baby” connects and “Aviator” soars, there are disappointing reactions to “Spanglish,” for which James L. Brooks delivered the final cut just days before it bows.

DEC. 26
“The Phantom of the Opera” and “Hotel Rwanda” open, with “Rwanda” building momentum in the race due to many appearances by Paul Rusesabagina, its real-life subject. Chicago critics go for “Sideways” and Eastwood.

JAN. 2
Academy mails final ballots. Distribs frantically ship prints of contenders to Maui, Aspen and anywhere else they can find vacationing industryites.

JAN. 9
National Society of Film Critics declares “Million Dollar Baby” the year’s best pic. Hilary Swank and Staunton tie for actress. Foxx wins actor. Michael Moore is the star attraction at a House of Blues event centered on reviving attention for “Fahrenheit.” Producers Guild and Directors Guild noms are announced, with both agreeing on “Sideways,” “Neverland,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Aviator.” Taylor Hackford grabs the fifth DGA slot while the PGA tabs “The Incredibles.” Universal releases yet another DVD version of “Eternal Sunshine” to keep up its campaign.

JAN. 16
“Sideways,” Swank and Foxx win at the Broadcast Critics, with Scorsese grabbing directing honors. “Sideways” and “Aviator” win top prizes at Golden Globes with Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio, Foxx and Bening grabbing top acting trophies. Eastwood wins director while Clive Owen and Natalie Portman are surprise supporting winners, despite getting shut out at the SAG Awards, which go for “Ray,” “Rwanda,” “Aviator,” “Sideways” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Neverland.”
Academy polls close and the race for Oscar noms comes to an end, the contest every bit as confusing as when it first began.

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