Latest pics keep kudos watchers guessing

Oscar predictions have become a year-round event, but two episodes last week demonstrated the perils of making predictions too far in advance.

Within hours of each other, the Clint Eastwood-directed “Letters From Iwo Jima” and Bill Condon‘s “Dreamgirls” offered a sharp contrast in the ways that studios handle kudos buzz and expectations.

On Nov. 15, Eastwood and Warner Bros. told Daily Variety that “Letters,” the Japanese-language companion piece to “Flags of Our Fathers,” will get a kudos-qualifying release starting Dec. 20. That throws it into the Oscar race, where it will accompany — or compete with? — Paramount and DreamWorks’ “Flags.”

Eastwood has successfully used the art of surprise before. His “Million Dollar Baby” was lensed and edited largely under the radar until October 2004, when Warners announced it would be ready for a December release.

On the same day as the “Letters” news, Par and DreamWorks held the public unveiling of “Dreamgirls,” which several online pundits had declared the front-runner in the Oscar race six months ago, even though no one had seen it.

Buzz had built a year ago, when trailers hit theaters before the film had started lensing. The media were invited to location filming, and in May journal-ists were shown 20 minutes of the pic at Cannes. That same presentation then was offered Stateside, and the media whipped itself into a frenzy of enthusiasm throughout the summer.

But as other movies with Oscar hopes began opening in the fall, the Oscar talk shifted elsewhere.

Par-DreamWorks rekindled the spark by offering screenings in 57 U.S. mar-kets for those in the biz and the media.

With Oscar, as with comedy, it’s all in the timing. Having revived its buzz, “Dreamgirls” now must maintain it through Feb. 20, when final Oscar ballots are due.

In contrast, WB has to build awareness for “Let-ters” and quickly structure a campaign that dovetails with “Flags” (which is eligible in all the same Oscar categories) and that does not butt heads with other WB hopefuls (“The Departed,” “Blood Diamond,” etc.)

The original plan had been to take “Letters” out early next year, when “Flags” (which Par is dis-tribbing domestically) would still be getting plenty of public attention. But if “Flags” had receded by then, “Letters” would be lost.

Then again, Academy voters may see the making of two movies in two differ-ent languages showing both sides of the same event as a single feat by Eastwood. Even then, though, it’s not clear which pic would be honored.

But it’s conundrums such as these that cast doubt on anyone who claims to know in November which way Oscar will go.

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