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Round one: A fight for attention

Big studios wage a comeback after last year's niche knockouts

At this juncture in the 2005 Oscar race, few pundits would have predicted the down-to-the-wire battle between “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain.” The race was open right through to the nominations. Films that were thought to be shoo-ins, like “Memoirs of a Geisha,” quickly fell out, and Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated “Munich” was unseen until the last minute, and when it finally was released, it ceased to be a major contender.

In the end, the noms were dominated by niche pics (and low-budget ones at that). Only “Munich,” which boomeranged back into contention, represented the major studios. The remaining four nominees — “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Capote” — were all well-respected films, but except for “Brokeback,” none was considered to have any kind of lock on a best-picture nom.

The presence of four such movies in the race continued a prevailing trend. Since 2000, only 11 of the 30 best picture nominees have been studio-produced films, though, to be fair, several of the so-called independent entries, such as Miramax’s “The Aviator” and New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, had all the earmarks (and certainly the pricetags) of large studio films.

The majors have rallied and, whatever the makeup of the final top five, it’s unlikely the category will be overwhelmed by niche films. In fact, many of the studios’ releases have proved themselves with critics and/or at the box office, and there are some promising titles still on tap, giving the majors a better-than-even chance of a respectable, if not great, showing.

Virtually every studio appears to have at least one potential contender, just a sampling of which includes Paramount’s “World Trade Center,” DreamWorks/Par’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Dreamgirls,” WB/ DreamWorks’ “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “The Departed,” “The Good German” and “Blood Diamond,” Universal’s “United 93” and “The Good Shepherd” and BV’s “Apocalypto.”

“This year looks much stronger than last year,” says publicist Murray Weissman, who worked on the Oscar campaign for “Crash.” “It’s going to be harder for a little movie to find a place this time around.”

Universal’s co-president of marketing Eddie Eagan concurs that, even based on the films already in release, 2006 is shaping up to be a good year. “The mix of films is less predictable. The playing field seems to be more level and people are being more generous in their thinking of what a contender is,” he says.

The return to form for the studios has less to do with a change in tactic than the simultaneous arrival of new films from pedigreed filmmakers such as Bill Condon, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Ed Zwick.

On the specialized front, there have certainly been worthy films already released, such as Fox Searchlight’s “The Last King of Scotland” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” Paramount Vantage’s “Babel,” Focus’ “Catch a Fire,” Miramax’s “The Queen,” New Line’s “Little Children,” the Weinstein Co.’s “Bobby” and SPC’s “Volver.” And there are any number of wild cards on the horizon, such as Miramax’s “Venus” and Fox Searchlight’s “Notes on a Scandal.”

As Sony Pictures Classics’ principal Michael Barker puts it, “Because the race lacks a real front-runner, there’ll be a lot of surprises, and the nominations could be all over the place.”

The absence of a front-runner is good for the horse race, observes Nancy Utley, chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight: “People are likely to pay closer attention and get more involved in the conversation.”

As was demonstrated by “Crash,” in a year when there is no leader, getting into the race is crucial. Had it not landed in the top five — which was by no means certain, especially given its mixed reviews and early-in-the-year release — “Crash” would not have been in the position to score its stunning upset.

That’s great news for Utley and her successful summer release “Little Miss Sunshine,” which will benefit from its upcoming DVD marketing push. The publicity attendant to the DVD release of other films, such as “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” could refresh those titles in the minds of voters as well. The DVD release was crucial to securing “Crash” its berth last year.

“Momentum actually started to build at the Hollywood Film Festival in October, and then Lionsgate made the move to send the DVD out to the entire SAG membership,” says Weissman.

Whether there’s a favorite or not, says Dawn Taubin, president of theatrical marketing at Warner Bros., it’s business as usual at this point in the game. “Fortunately, we have a separate publicity team on each of our films this year,” Taubin says.

Her efforts there were helped by the release of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” in early fall. The critical and commercial success of the movie helped position the film as a viable potential candidate, creating a suitable launching pad for WB’s campaign. “We were fortunate in that the critics and audiences helped decide that for us,” Taubin acknowledges.

Conversely, despite good reviews, “Flags of Our Fathers” lost a bit of its pre-release luster when it stumbled at the box office, though it certainly could pull a “Munich,” since it’s directed by a two-time Oscar winner, Eastwood, and produced by Spielberg, who proved last year that respect for a world-class filmmaker can sometimes overcome other negative factors.

A film’s reputation sometimes morphs as the year progresses. “The Queen,” for example, was initially perceived as a “performance film,” thanks to Helen Mirren. “But it’s being perceived in a different light. It now has a profile of a movie to be counted,” says Battsek.

And in an open race, it’s not unheard of for Oscar to favor a foreign title, such as “Volver,” or one that is largely non-English, like “Babel” or “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Although the Pedro Almodovar film likely will be among the foreign-language film nominees, it has a good shot at being cited in the best picture category as well. As SPC’s Barker points out, it happened recently with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life Is Beautiful.”

But for now, Barker’s battle is the same as that being waged by every other marketer in town: “We’ve got to make sure Academy members get to see our film,” Barker says. “There’s only a finite amount of time and a lot of movies to see.”

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