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Does awards season chatter matter?

Buzz threatens to overwhelm Oscar's pleasures

With awards season well under way, distribs are walking a tightrope, simultaneously trying to control the buzz on their potential kudos pics, reading Internet and audience chatter about their films like tea leaves and also trying to maintain an aura of expectation and anticipation.

It’s a heady mixture that forces distribs to adapt quickly to any new blip that pops up on the kudo radar.

As Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, puts it: “It used to be you went and you watched. Now you go and you watch and there is this chatter — and the chatter actually affects the Oscar race.”

Following the exclusion of the heavily-touted “Dreamgirls” from a best picture nom last year, handlers of the new season’s crop may be deliberately avoiding the front-runner spotlight. But insiders say the notion that studios are changing their strategies in the wake of the “Dreamgirls” miss is a quickly developing myth.

Witness another musical that’s boldly gunning for a picture slot this year: “Hairspray.” The not so subtle difference, however, is that this musical already opened to critical praise and boffo business in summer.

But as fall and winter’s kudo hopefuls begin to unspool in commercial theaters (and screening rooms), distribs are managing or heeding the “chatter” as some pics have underperformed theatrically (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Things We Lost in the Fire,” among others) or come up short (“Lions for Lambs”).

Focus Features platformed Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” in late September. Box office sat at just north of $3 million by the second week in November, but the company’s keeping kudos hopes high. “It’s a film that we know met with some critical resistence early on,” Focus CEO James Schamus says, “and somehow that’s dissipating a bit.” He says a recent BAFTA screening in New York was sold out, even in week seven of the film’s release.

“When you have those things happening, we’ll continue to nurture the film in that way.”

“It’s all about finding a sense of rhythm and staying on the boil — and taking a good, long look at your movie,” says Urman, who’s putting his money on a title no distributor seemed to want, and some even passed on twice: Sidney Lumet’s critically lauded “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” The ThinkFilm release has done solid numbers in a limited rollout starting in late October and is gaining traction as its screen count rises.

With an array of tactics at their disposal, some studios have held titles close to the vest — Universal (“Charlie Wilson’s War”), Paramount Vantage (“There Will Be Blood”) and DreamWorks (“Sweeney Todd”) among them. By early November, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a handful of critics or awards pundits who’d had a peek at those films.

Urman notes that the upside and downside with that strategy is that “people are imagining brilliance until it is surmised.”

Still, some studios got out ahead of pics — such as Universal with “American Gangster,” which had multiple pre-release screenings and sneaks — rather than bottling up the anticipation. Miramax Films (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “No Country for Old Men”) and Focus Features (“Atonement,” “Eastern Promises,” “Lust, Caution”) openly showed their films at festivals and industry screenings for a considerable amount of time, figuring on word of mouth to muster supportive ambassadors and good will.

Show and tell

“Keeping your gift hidden to simply build buzz has often backfired,” notes Schamus. “It’s a strategy that in and of itself doesn’t often make sense. Our movies are sold best when people discuss them, and that takes time.”

Among Focus’ offerings, “Atonement,” which bowed at Venice and then played in Toronto, built up kudos buzz at those screenings and has been presumed a strong contender ever since. “To me it’s the definition of an all-category movie,” says Schamus.

But sometimes too much time between a successful fest unspooling and awards season can be seen as a detriment. “Nobody wants to be in a position where they have the favorite and then it disappears into space,” says Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek. “After Cannes, we kept our movies quiet for a period of time, but one can only control so much.”

Meanwhile, there’s talk Fox Searchlight could snag the “Little Miss Sunshine” picture slot again this year with “Juno.” The distrib hurried to release the comedy in December, as it’s been delighting fest auds since its Telluride and Toronto unspoolings in September.

Bingham Ray, who heads up distribution for Sidney Kimmel Entertainment — producer of another Toronto comedy favorite, “Lars and the Real Girl” — argues in favor of thinking outside the box, even if “Sunshine” territory is there for the taking. He reminds that every film is different, a cliche but accurate. “If you model something after a film that was a phenomenon, you get into trouble,” he says. “You can borrow things, but a lot of it you have to contrive, and hopefully you carve yourself into the zeitgeist.”

(Sharon Swart contributed to this story.)

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