Crowded Oscar race this year

Films try hard to stand out in extra-tough season

Picture this: A giant arena jam-packed with bumper cars, each with a film’s name — maybe “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “American Gangster” or “La Vie en rose” — proudly decorating its hood; a starter wearing a Toronto Film Festival T-shirt fires his gun, and all cars immediately start crashing into each other as they jockey for position in the crowded field and race toward the narrow exit marked “Oscars.”

“That’s a pretty accurate description of the process,” says Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek. “And when you’re in the thick of it, it’s so busy. I remember last year when we had ‘The Queen’ and ‘Venus,’ we were equally concerned about getting ahead of the competition.

“It does feel particularly crowded and competitive this year, but I always trust that the cream will rise to the top,” Battsek says.

But how to get that cream to rise? Exploiting a pic’s festival raves, strong reviews and word of mouth plus association with previous Oscar-winning talent certainly helps a film stand out for voters.

So is it madness or survival of the fittest?

“It’s really too much,” says Bob Berney, Picturehouse president. “There are a lot of good films that in any other year, without this glut, would have had a much better chance to survive. But there’s so much money in the marketplace — hedge funds and so on; everyone’s investing in films — it’s created a monster.”

“It’s crazy — there are just so many releases coming out, it’s hard to pick a date,” agrees producer Mike Marcus, the former president and chief operating officer of MGM (’93-’97). “Every distributor I talk to says there’s no great weekend anymore because they’re all so crowded. And it’s getting worse.”

For Miramax, this year’s best is represented by “No Country for Old Men” from the Oscar-winning Coen brothers; “Gone Baby Gone,” Ben Affleck’s directorial debut; and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” the acclaimed film by director and artist Julian Schnabel about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the high-flying editor of French Elle who was suddenly paralyzed by a devastating stroke.

Despite its harrowing subject matter and all-French dialogue, the latter film has a lot going for it, Battsek notes. “It’s extremely emotional, it screens incredibly well, and is actually very uplifting. And by winning best director at Cannes, it’s already established itself.”

It also comes with a great pedigree — the film was produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik (“Babel,” “Pollock”), who also produced Schnabel’s other films.

Miramax may also be helped in its campaign by the ironic fact that the film, in the French language with an all-French cast and shot entirely on location in France by two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, is ineligible for a foreign-language film nomination.

“That shifts the focus into seeing it as a movie without borders,” Battsek says. “Now the language is irrelevant, and you just see all the elements that make it a great film — the direction, the cinematography, the screenplay, the acting and the film’s sheer power.”

Coincidentally, a French film is also at the forefront of Picturehouse’s Oscar campaign.

“We’re really pushing ‘La Vie en rose,’ and particularly Marion Cotillard for best actress,” Berney says. “Her performance and reviews have really put her out front. We’ll push all categories for the film, but my hope is that she ends up in the running.”

The company is also tubthumping “The Orphanage,” produced by “Pan’s Labyrinth” director Guillermo del Toro; and “El Cantante,” the biopic of Puerto Rican salsa pioneer Hector Lavoe, starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.

Berney — a savvy marketer who, when he was president of Newmarket Films, oversaw the release of such pics as the $370 million-grossing “The Passion of the Christ”; “Monster,” which won Charlize Theron an actress Academy Award; and “Whale Rider,” which earned 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes a nomination for actress — says he “deliberately” released “La Vie en rose” very early in the summer, “as I felt the year-end Oscar period would be so brutal.”

The strategy has paid off, he notes. “It’s still playing, from June 6, and we’ve benefited from great word of mouth about Marion’s performance, and there’s the DVD release (in November). But you can only do that — go early, then come back and remind people — if you have a very strong film and performance. Otherwise you’ll just be forgotten.”

Good word of mouth “is crucial,” agrees Mark Kristol, president, marketing and distribution, at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. “There’s so much out there, you need that great audience response to help push your likely contenders.”

For Kimmel, those contenders include such releases through their partners as “Talk to Me” (Focus), “Lars and the Real Girl” (MGM) and “The Kite Runner” (Paramount Vantage/ DreamWorks).

“Like everyone else, first off you need Academy voters and guild members to see the films, and fortunately they’ve already received strong critical response along with great audience enthusiasm,” Kristol notes. “And don’t forget, all the voters are first and foremost consumers. Everyone’s looking for great films to see, and we feel all three filmmakers have done most of the heavy lifting for us in that sense.”

But like the others, Kristol is well aware that this year seems to be especially congested. “And the commercial marketplace only seems to be able to expand to a certain level to accommodate all the releases,” he says. “Clearly there are more films released each week now than the average person could ever get to, so that word of mouth becomes ever more important, especially in reaching the voters.”

Prestigious dramas always do well with the Academy. But what if you have a small, edgy, indie comedy you feel is worthy of consideration?

“It can be very tough to fight off the competition,” admits Marcus, whose comedy “You Kill Me,” staring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman and Tea Leoni as his love interest, was one of the best-reviewed indies of the year. And while it never gained the expected traction at the box office, it’s now building some buzz. “I think Tea, as best supporting actress, and the writers have the best shot,” Marcus says. “It’s the film I’m most proud of since I made ‘Get Shorty’ at MGM.”

Sums up Battsek, “It’s always been tough, but with so many good films out there, this year seems particularly brutal.”

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