David meets Goliath

Academy winners come in all sizes. Which will it be in 2006?

Oscar watchers have seen it all before: those pitched award season battles between big-budget, craft-driven movies that Academy members drool over vs. more thoughtful, critically driven smaller gems that sometimes catch their fancy.

In recent years, Goliaths like “Titanic,” “Gladiator,” “Chicago” and, of course, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” have all gone on to glory, leaving several aspiring Davids like “Good Will Hunting,” “Traffic,” “The Pianist” and “Mystic River,” to name just a few, scrounging for leftovers (mostly in the acting categories). But for every “Braveheart” there’s a “Chariots of Fire” and “American Beauty” to prove wrong the conventional wisdom that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences thinks bigger is better.

One of the most memorable skirmishes occurred in 1998, when Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” shocked Steven Spielberg’s sure thing, “Saving Private Ryan,” and took the picture title after a brutal campaign. As recently as last season, Clint Eastwood’s $32 million stealth entry, “Million Dollar Baby,” clobbered Oscar bridesmaid Martin Scorsese’s big-budget, multiple-studio epic, “The Aviator.”

So what’s in the cards this year?

There are a few potential Goliaths (as usual) such as “Memoirs of a Geisha” and the still-unseen “King Kong,” “Munich” and “The New World.” While in the other corner Davids generating heat include “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Walk the Line” and Woody Allen’s “Match Point.”

A lot of execs seem to think in a wide-open year like this the pic playing field has been leveled and it’s not size that matters at all.

“Big movie, small movie, it’s just not the case. It ultimately always comes down to the quality of the work and the degree to which the pictures move the Academy,” says Fox co-chairman and Fox Searchlight founder Tom Rothman, who has been on both sides of the battle. “There could be a tendency to look for a lot of spectacle, but I give the Academy credit. They’re smart and they recognize two things that best pictures tend to have in common, which is artistic ambition and execution.”

Fox released Ridley Scott’s epic “Kingdom of Heaven” in May to ho-hum B.O., and now finds itself campaigning for its inexpensive fall trio of “In Her Shoes,” “The Family Stone” and “Walk the Line,” the $28 million Johnny Cash biopic for which it has especially high hopes. Rothman reminds that Searchlight’s $16 million pic nominee “Sideways” last year proved small is sometimes better.

In fact, the David vs. Goliath scenario can’t even be defined in terms of major studios vs. indies anymore. Each of the majors proudly houses specialty divisions devoted to turning out more ambitious and cost-conscious product that the parents tout right alongside their own releases in campaign trade ads. The lines have definitely blurred.

“I see a trend that the big studios themselves are making more thoughtful films,” says Sony Pictures Classic co-prexy Michael Barker. “That may sound crazy but studios are definitely in there more so than usual.” Witness his “Capote” vs. Columbia’s “Geisha” competing in a free-for-all under the same corporate umbrella.

That’s not to say the majors have discovered a budget cap is the way to the Kodak Theater. Universal’s prodigious lineup of contenders, for example, hardly qualify for the Indie Spirit Awards. With “Munich,” “The Producers,” “King Kong,” “Jarhead” and “Cinderella Man,” it’s clearly hoping it has a couple of Goliaths. That’s the case even if it means U specialty division Focus Features, with an impressive lineup of its own, must settle for less on Oscar night.

The campaign budget and size of his colleagues’ films doesn’t seem to faze Focus co-prexy James Schamus. “People vote for best picture on what they think best picture is. That award has gone to some so-called smaller pictures many times,” he says.

Although watching “The Pianist” come so close with acting, writing and directing wins only to lose to “Chicago” for the big prize was frustrating. “The one thing you always know about the Academy Awards is you’re always going to be surprised. The years where one film like ‘Titanic’ or ‘Return of the King’ dominates are rare and I do not expect this year to be like that,” says Schamus, who co-produced Focus hopeful “Brokeback Mountain” and also will be pushing “The Constant Gardener” and “Pride & Prejudice.”

The real Davids in the race might be the true indies who tend to release highly praised pics that few people see. Without the budgets of the majors or even that of specialty divisions, opening Roger Donaldson’s “The World’s Fastest Indian” in hopes of getting an actor nom is a big gamble for Magnolia.

“It’s just a big challenge to get this film in front of everybody, to get it seen,” says Magnolia prexy Eamonn Bowles. “So we will be screening it like crazy plus taking a fair amount of advertising, if not on the level of a big studio release. Once people see it these things tend to take on a life of their own with the buzz of people just responding to it.”

Or so he hopes. It ain’t always easy when your name is David.

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