Celluloid slalom

“It’s a scary month.”

That’s how specialized studio executives describe the first month of the new year. Just as overwhelming as September and possibly as intimidating as May, January (and early February) presents industry players with a harrowing schedule. Not only does North America’s pre-eminent film fest, Sundance, kick off the calendar as Oscar season enters its final stretch, but right around the corner, megafest Berlin sets in motion the international marketplace.

Add on events in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara and far-flung showcases such as Paris’ Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Gothenburg in Sweden and Tromso in Norway, and the film biz finds itself hurled from the holiday frying pan straight into the film festival fire.

“I wouldn’t discount any of these festivals as time goes on,” says Kristin Jones, Miramax’s senior VP of production, international development and acquisitions, “because people are going to go wherever they can find great films. But obviously most of us are mobilizing for Sundance, because that’s the biggie.”

As acquisition execs storm the mountains of Park City, movie marketers and Oscar campaigners head to California. Both Palm Springs (Jan. 4-15) and Santa Barbara (Jan. 25-Feb. 4) take place during the heat of Oscar season. With nominating ballots due Jan. 13 and final ballots mailed out Jan. 31, both festivals are primed to raise the profile of eligible films and talents.

Mark Urman, ThinkFilm’s head of theatrical releasing, says Palm Springs is “a very important buzz stop for the Oscars, and one place where you are sure to get the creme de la creme of foreign-language film. We always try to get our Oscar hopefuls to play there, and frequently ship prints straight from Sundance.”

This year’s Palm Springs fest, for example, will host 55 of the 61 entries in the running for the foreign-language Oscar.

“It’s a good place to show foreign-language films,” agrees Sony Picture Classics’ Michael Barker, heralding the festival’s ability to spur good word of mouth. At this year’s fest, Barker notes, the company will hold the gala U.S. premiere of “Black Book,” the Dutch Oscar submission, in addition to other SPC subtitled pics “The Italian,” “The Lives of Others,” “Offside,” “Jindabyne,” “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “Volver.”

Palm Springs is the larger of the two California festivals and has its fair share of tubthumping celebrities. This year’s honorees include the director and cast of “Babel” as well as “Little Miss Sunshine” writer Michael Arndt and co-helmers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, among others.

Festival director Darryl Macdonald admits kudo season makes it easier to rope in the A-list people. “There’s no question timing plays a role in getting better access,” he says.

But Palm Springs’ one-night-only gala is just one small step on the road to Oscar glory. Santa Barbara, Palm Springs’ smaller cousin to the west, intersperses celebrity honors (this year, Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Will Smith and Al Gore) and high-profile panel discussions with Hollywood bigwigs throughout the duration of the festival.

Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney says the festivals can really make a difference in Oscar prestige. “Because they’re so close to Los Angeles and you really are able to have the directors and actors meet the voters,” he says, “the festivals are important more and more.” Berney says Santa Barbara is especially suited to buttressing acting talents; in recent years, SBIFF tributees Charlize Theron, George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman all went on to Oscar victory.

For many, relaxing in Southern California feels a lot better than jetting off to the dreary weather of Rotterdam. While specialized toppers don’t pay much attention to the Netherlands fest — known for its cinema from developing nations and budding auteurs — Euro-based acquisition scouts will take the trip by plane or train to target a particular film.

Then comes Berlin, which Sony’s Barker calls “one of the most important festivals in the year. It’s the first time that people gather from all over the world to not only look at new films, but to interact.”

Berlin has a leg up on Sundance as far as the world marketplace, say execs, especially in light of the American Film Market’s 2004 move to November. “Internationally, Berlin is gaining significance,” says Miramax’s Jones. “There is a certain cadre of international directors who would much rather take their movies to Berlin than Sundance. Over the last three years, I’ve definitely watched every mini-major in Berlin with a significant presence.”

And if film executives think they’re busy right now, Palm Springs’ Macdonald says, “It’s a horrendous time to do a film festival. We don’t have a Thanksgiving, we don’t have a Christmas, we don’t have a New Year’s. And there are these gaps of time when you can’t get ahold of anyone.”

OTHER STORIES FROM THE PALM SPRINGS INTL. FILM FESTIVAL REPORT

Macdonald helps boost community fests

Palm Springs brings younger and starrier to parties

Oasis options: Palm Spring attractions

Pollack proffers pros of global pics

Other Palm Springs Intl. Film Fest honorees

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