Plenty to ponder at Oscar's midway point

The year is half over, but in terms of awards, the fun is just beginning. Only a few serious kudos contenders have so far emerged, such as “Cinderella Man” and “Crash”; the bulk of hopefuls arrive, as usual, in the second half of the year.

Making the current kudos race more interesting are two major quirks: the slight shift in Oscar scheduling and, more significant, a reshuffled deck of players.

Miramax has always been a major force in awards campaigns, and this year, there will be the revised Miramax as well as the Weinsteins’ as-yet-unnamed company. And as old stalwart Fine Line steps back, Picturehouse — the new HBO-New Line venture — moves into the spotlight, under the stewardship of Bob Berney, an Oscar vet who propelled “Monster” and “Whale Rider,” among others, into kudos land.

As for timing, the 78th annual Academy Awards will be held March 5 — a week later than usual. In light of the accelerated sked inaugurated two years ago, the kudocast would logically be on Feb. 26, but for 2006 the ceremony was postponed one week due to the Winter Olympics. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hasn’t announced other dates on its calendar, meaning there could be an extra week between nominations and awards.)

It’s impossible to calculate whether timing affects the outcome, but awards campaigns have a certain rhythm — campaigners need to carefully time screenings to give voters enough time to see the film, but try to make sure that enthusiasm doesn’t peak too early. This year will be interesting because any change in that rhythm can alter things.

Spielberg stacks up

Then there’s the Steven Spielberg factor. Like his double whammy in 1993 with “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” this year’s two-fer of “War of the Worlds” and the as-yet-untitled Munich Olympics project — set to open in December for DreamWorks-Universal — could both get major consideration in all categories.

Awards voters have saluted popcorn pics in the past. The question is whether Paramount-DreamWorks’ “Worlds” will be considered for best pic like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jaws,” or singled out only in tech categories, as “Jurassic” was when Spielberg’s more serious “Schindler’s List” opened later in that same year.

It’s an interesting sign of kudos handicapping that pundits are already predicting the Munich film as a pic contender, even though it’s only finished a few days of principal photography.

Sked jockeying

Given the accelerated awards schedule in recent years, it might seem logical that studios would follow the “Gladiator” model: Open the awards hopeful in the first half of the year, then launch the DVD with a lot of hoopla during kudos season.

It worked for “Seabiscuit,” but this year, the only major studio film to follow that formula is Universal-Miramax’s “Cinderella Man.” Some have questioned whether the disappointing box office will hurt its Oscar chances. Maybe, but Oscar voters tend to overlook B.O. and vote for their faves and, so far, “Cinderella” has been getting industry thumbs-up.

Meanwhile, Lions Gate’s “Crash” is serious and, most important, is the kind of film that inspires great passion from its fans. Like every awards hopeful, those two pics are affected by one key factor — what else opens this year.

There are only a few other contenders from the January-June period: New Line’s performance-rich “The Upside of Anger,” as well as plenty of contenders in the tech categories, such as Fox’s “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” WB’s “Batman Begins,” and Dimension’s “Sin City.”

Indie offerings

The year’s first half also introduced films that created positive buzz at Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, though these pics are skedded for release in the second half. That list includes Focus Features’ “Broken Flowers,” directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Bill Murray; DreamWorks’ Woody Allen pic “Match Point”; New Line’s “A History of Violence,” directed by David Cronenberg; Paramount Classics’ “Hustle & Flow”; Samuel Goldwyn’s “The Squid and the Whale,” starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney; and the Weinsteins’ “Transamerica,” with Felicity Huffman.

And, with the accelerated awards season, Venice and Toronto lineups take on even more gravitas in terms of awards timing.

The January-June period saw too many interesting toons and docus to mention. June alone saw the bows of “Rize,” “March of the Penguins,” “The Last Mogul,” “Deep Blue,” “Mad Hot Ballroom” and “Rock School.” (If the docu race is heating up, why isn’t the pic contest?)

Meanwhile, toons from the first half include Fox’s “Robots,” Disney’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” and DreamWorks’ “Madagascar.” They’ll be joined by a bevy of others this year, including Disney’s “Chicken Little,” DreamWorks’ “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and WB’s Tim Burton pic “Corpse Bride.”

As for live-action, this year offers several high-profile pics from Oscar-winning directors, aside from Spielberg, Ron Howard and Woody Allen. The list includes TriStar’s “Oliver Twist” (Roman Polanski), Universal’s “Jarhead” (Sam Mendes) and “King Kong” (Peter Jackson) .

But that is the nature of awards soothsaying. Handicappers study the upcoming films, and many of them look good on paper.

Following are some of the July-December openers — not including animated features, docus or foreign films — that will be up in a variety of categories, from tech to best pic.

There are a few disclaimers. Sleepers and last-minute additions always pop up: Last year at this time, “Million Dollar Baby” was not even on the schedule for 2004.

July: DreamWorks’ “The Island”; Fox’s “Fantastic Four”; Warner Bros.’ “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.”

August: Focus Features’ “The Constant Gardener” (Fernando Meirelles, Ralph Fiennes); Par Classics’ “Asylum” (written by Patrick Marber).

September: Focus Features’ “Pride and Prejudice” (Keira Knightley); Miramax’s “Proof” (Gwyneth Paltrow) and “The Libertine” (Johnny Depp); Picturehouse’s “The Thing About My Folks” (Paul Reiser); Sony Classics’ “Capote” (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Warner Independent’s Liev Schreiber film “Everything Is Illuminated”; Disney’s Jodie Foster thriller “Flight Plan” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (directed by Bill Paxton).

October: Disney’s “Shop Girl” (Steve Martin); Fox’s Curtis Hanson-Cameron Diaz pic “In Her Shoes”; Fox Searchlight’s “Bee Season” (Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche) and “Separate Lies” (the directing debut of Julian Fellowes); Lions Gate’s “Lord of War” (Nicolas Cage) and “Fierce People” (Diane Lane); Paramount’s “Elizabethtown” and “The Weather Man” (Nicolas Cage); Universal’s “Prime” (Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman); Warner Independent’s George Clooney-helmed Edward R. Murrow pic “Good Night. And, Good Luck” (and, yes, that’s the punctuation); Weinsteins-Disney’s “Derailed” (Jennifer Aniston, Clive Owen).

November: Fox’s “Walk the Line” (Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter); New Line’s “The New World” (Terrence Malick); Paramount’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” (50 Cent and director Jim Sheridan); Sony Classics’ Merchant-Ivory “The White Countess” (with Natasha Richardson, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave) and “Breakfast on Pluto” (Neil Jordan); Sony-Revolution’s “Rent” (Chris Columbus); Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”; Weinsteins-Miramax’s “The Matador” (Pierce Brosnan).

December: Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (“Shrek” co-director Andrew Adamson’s live-action debut) and “Casanova” (Lasse Hallstrom, Heath Ledger); Focus Features’ “Brokeback Mountain” (Ang Lee, Ledger again); Sony’s Rob Marshall-helmed “Memoirs of a Geisha” and the Jude Law-Sean Penn “All the King’s Men”; Universal-Sony’s “The Producers“; Weinsteins-Disney’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (Stephen Frears, Judi Dench).

Several of this year’s bows had been penciled in for 2004 release. And Warner Bros. has several contenders opening in the next six months wi
th, so far, flexible dates. They include “Syriana” (George Clooney); the untitled Niki Caro movie with Charlize Theron; Curtis Hanson’s “Lucky You”; and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain.”

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