Awards season brings out the best, worst

THIS IS an historic moment, reminding everyone about the power, the importance — and the anxiety — of voting.

After all the pros and cons have been weighed, it all comes down to that ballot. And the rest of the world watches a new chapter in history being made.

Did you think I was talking about the presidential election? No, no, that’s over. Who cares about that kind of stuff when awards season is under way?

This column will run Wednesdays throughout the season. It will not handicap but rather will report on the eternal oddities of awards season, as well as the specifics of this year’s races.

As always with the campaigning, there will be subtle mudslinging, there will be blood and, crucially, there will be gift bags.

Bloggers, as always, will make lofty Oscar predictions about films they haven’t even seen. (Last year, “Charlie Wilson’s War” was one of the last kudo hopefuls to be screened, and even up to the 11th hour, bloggers continued to predict best pic and director noms, based on the film’s credentials.)

However, there will be no predictions in this column, no rattling off lists of top 10s, no use of the words “dark horse” or “snub.” When it comes to the awards races, we are Switzerland: neutral and, admittedly, a little chilly.

EARLY NOVEMBER is an appropriate time to start, since we are entering Phase 3 of the season. The first stage occurs before even a foot of film has been shot, when agents and studio PR workers assure artists that the film is a shoo-in for awards (and sometimes negotiate contractual clauses that designate campaigns).

Phase 2 begins after studio folk have seen a rough cut and confide discreetly to the press, “I don’t want to say to much, but it is. Really. Really. Good.” But, they insist, it’s not ready to be screened to outsiders.

It’s at this moment when Oscar hopes were still alive for the makers of “Beloved,” “Pay It Forward,” “The Shipping News,” “K-Pax,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Meet Joe Black,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “Life as a House,” “Man on the Moon,” “Angela’s Ashes,” “All the King’s Men,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Miss Potter,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Redacted.”

In Phase 3, all the kept-under-wraps films start to be screened for people outside the studios.

This is the crucial period when hopes can be confirmed (“No Country for Old Men,” “Michael Clayton”) — or when there is a sudden reversal of fortune for “hot” films like “The Kite Runner” and almost-under-the-radar pics like “Juno” and “There Will be Blood.”

IN THE PAST MONTH, screenings have started for a few long-unscreened pics like Miramax’s “Doubt,” Par Vantage’s “Defiance” and Universal-Imagine’s “Frost/Nixon.” Still under wraps are Fox’s “Australia,” Sony’s “Seven Pounds,” Warner Bros.’ “Gran Torino” and the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader.”

A handful of journalists have seen Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road” and Par’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Another annual ritual: Watching to see who will send out the first screener (this year it was Sony Pictures Classics, with “Frozen River”), and who will be the last to show their film.

As early screenings of any kudos hopeful begins, studio strategists use the opportunity to badmouth rivals’ films. (The usual approach: a casual mention that the other movie’s not very good. If you counter that you’ve heard positive things, they will nicely say it’s OK, but not awards material.)

So, yes, some refrains are familiar. But, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every awards season is different.

This year, there was a temporary setback to the reputations of Telluride, Toronto and Venice as Oscar launchpads, because many of the big hopefuls were not ready, or were being held back.

WHILE THE MAJORS have ceded the awards races to indies and specialty divisions for the past few years, the studios long ago promised a 2008 comeback (Variety, March 3-9).

As usual, there have been twists and turns. DreamWorks moved “The Soloist” into next year while MGM/UA shifted “Valkyrie” into this year. “The Wrestler” and “Slumdog Millionaire” emerged as awards fodder without advance fanfare (Fox Searchlight acquired both of them). And as for the wrangling over the opening date of “The Reader,” that drama has proved more entertaining than a lot of the films that were touted as hot contenders six months ago and that seem to have already dropped out of the race.

The films have to prove themselves but, this year, so do the awards shows — at least the televised ones. The Oscarcast’s ratings hit an all-time low in February, and the Golden Globes will work to recover from the surreal strike-scarred ceremony. (Pretty much anything they do will be better than that show).

Oscarcast producer Laurence Mark and exec producer Bill Condon have talent and style; their big challenge is overcoming those who want to uphold tradition (i.e., keep things the way they have been for the last 50 years).

As the season starts to exhaust you, worry you and wreak havoc with your adrenaline, just remember Ricky Gervais’ immortal advice to winners at the Sept. 21 Emmycast: “Don’t cry; it’s pathetic. It’s just an award.”

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