H'w'd strugges with season's new rhythm

Four years after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved the Oscar ceremony from March to February, many in the industry are still wondering: Has it worked?

Campaigning is just as intense, studios still pour money into advertising, and awards shows still flood the marketplace. Some pre-Oscar ceremonies, like the Critics Choice Awards and events at the Santa Barbara and Palm Springs film festivals, have only gained in stature.

Judging by release schedules, Hollywood still hasn’t figured out the rhythm of a February Oscars. Conventional wisdom was the earlier date would force studios to release more Oscar contenders earlier. That hasn’t been the case.

In fact, the schedule has gotten more crowded and competitive. Some 48 movies were released in December, compared with 41 in 2002, the last awards season before the Oscars were moved.

“I think most people feel like this year was the toughest one we’ve had so far with the new system, in terms of the numbers of pictures that opened in December,” says Academy executive director Bruce Davis. “There’s always a few that poke through, but it doesn’t seem to make sense in terms of Academy Awards or economics. I just don’t know what people are thinking when they make these decisions.”

Despite the earlier date, many studio execs still believe that a late December launch is needed to maintain a film’s buzz during awards voting. Filmmakers and talent are often more adamant: They feel that a December bow is synonymous with prestige, but anything earlier connotes the studio’s lack of interest.

In fact, recent history belies these long-held beliefs. Last year’s best pic winner, “Crash,” was a May launch. Four of this season’s five best pic nominees opened before December: “Little Miss Sunshine” in July; “The Departed,” “The Queen” and “Babel” in October.

Of the five, only “Letters From Iwo Jima” launched in December, and that one had the Clint Eastwood-Steven Spielberg names to ensure voter interest in a crowded season. In 2002, all five best pic nominees opened in December.

When Halle Berry won the Oscar for the 2001 “Monster’s Ball,” the pic opened at the end of the year and built word of mouth before the March kudocast. It’s questionable whether such small films would have time to build momentum with the accelerated awards schedule if they still bow in December.

The results would indicate that studios need to launch their candidates before December. On the other hand, studios are weighing the financial factor, and earlier bows make it harder to capitalize at the box office on nominations.

Harvey Weinstein says that the earlier Oscars can “cut the life” out of late year releases. The Weinstein Co.’s “Miss Potter,” released on Dec. 29, three days after Oscar ballots went out, got all but lost in the awards season crush. Plans are for the movie, which has earned positive reviews and is performing well overseas, to be moved to March, after the kudos derby is over.

“I think you have to spend more money now just to sustain a movie throughout the season,” Weinstein says. For distribs, having a later Oscar date “was cheaper, and I think better for the movies.”

PictureHouse’s Bob Berney, who found success with “Pan’s Labyrinth” this season, says: “With the shorter time period, you can come in at the end as an effective way to consolidate a picture’s theatrical release money and its awards campaign money. You have to be pretty confident (you will get awards recognition). ”

The question remains: With an earlier Oscar ceremony, does that mean more campaigning in a shorter period of time, or does the campaigning simply begin a month earlier? September’s Toronto Film Festival seems to have increased its importance as a strategic launching pad. (Admittedly, as studios spend on advertising, Variety has an interest in the results.)

learly the shorter time frame makes campaigning seem more intense — and exhausting. On the Feb. 10-11 weekend alone, people will be invited to the BAFTAs, Writers Guild Awards, the Grammys, Academy’s Sci-Tech Awards, Visual Effects Society and Animation Awards.

As much as Hollywood scram-bles during award season, one studio marketing rep notes, “People aren’t as desperate. When you have the longer period, it gives you more time to stir things up, which isn’t always a good thing.”

Many Academy members had hoped that when the decision to move the show was made in 2002, the earlier Oscars would cut down on campaigning and even some of the hype. Other kudofests and guild shows scrambled to move their dates, in some cases into the same weekend.

“We weren’t happy about campaigning, but (the earlier Oscars) was not in any sense a move to address that issue,” Davis says.

There are still just as many kudofests. And the buildup to the ceremony itself has become a week-long affair, with the prolif-eration of gift suites, studio parties and other promotional events.

Media attention has reached a fever pitch, with the Los Angeles Times and New York Times providing daily coverage and even Vanity Fair offering a daily blog called Little Gold Men. And stars fill their dockets with appearances, perhaps on an even more hectic schedule than in the past.

On Jan. 26, Helen Mirren had to make an 11 a.m. (2 a.m. PST) flight from London, where she was shooting “Inkheart,” and landed at 3 p.m. in Los Angeles to make a ceremony in her honor at the Santa Barbara Film Festival that evening. That was followed by events the next day and the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 28, before flying back to London on Jan. 29. “I must be going on adrenalin!” she told Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd.

While the Oscars have moved up, the box office battle among the specialty markets and major studio prestige pics has gotten more cutthroat. What has happened, distributors say, is a conundrum: To move a contender out of the holiday frame is to potentially be forgotten when Academy mem-bers are voting, not to mention to miss the lucrative holiday movie-going season. But the risk is that at the end of the year, there will be so many movies flooding the marketplace that voters won’t get a chance to see a film.

“This was definitely an over-crowded marketplace, and it did hurt a lot of films,” says one studio distribution head. “But releasing in October or November is just death. ‘Bobby’ opened just before Thanksgiving. Films can’t sustain themselves, or you have to re-launch and re-spend.”

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” released on Dec. 29, and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which debuted Dec. 20, went on to earn multiple nominations. But pictures like “The Good Shepherd,” “The Painted Veil,” “Miss Potter” and “Factory Girl” seemed to get lost in the shuffle. “Shepherd” wasn’t even completed until mid-December, just as Golden Globe nominations were announced. Screeners of “Potter” were sent out even before the pic’s Dec. 29 release date.

Although the Oscar season is still a scramble, Davis says the move to February was made to make sure the ceremony remained relevant.

“”We thought we were maybe being a little more polite than necessary about stepping back and allowing many, many awards shows to get in ahead of us. I think that most of us here would prefer if we could do the show even earlier.”

In the early 1980s, the show would air as late as April. But many of the releases, even those that debuted at the end of the year, were out of theaters by then, Davis notes.

“That was getting to be pretty old news,” he says. “I think moving it a month forward has fresh-ened (the ceremony), and we like that.”

Compared with numbers of eyeballs in those earlier years, the Oscarcast certainly has dipped in the ratings, but Davis says “we’ve held our own” given the overall erosion of network viewership. “There’s still only one television show that would not be delighted to trade ratings with us, and that is the Super Bowl. You have to put it into perspective.”

One person even proposed moving the Oscars to the same day as the Super Bowl, pairing it as kind of a national mega-event.

“No, no, no,” Davis says, laughing at the thought. “If we were to try to do this in late January, as some have suggested, it would just be impossible. I think we have approached the practical limitation of how early we can do the Oscars.”

(Pamela McClintock and Ian Mohr contributed to this report.)

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