Films poised at starting line

With awards, as with comedy, it’s all in the timing.

When studio execs think a film is a contender, they start building buzz that climaxes in mid-February, when the polls close for the Oscars. This year, as they vow to take back the awards race from their specialty divisions, the majors are trying a new timing tactic: withholding.

It’s rare to have so many awards-potential films held back from industry screenings. The list includes DreamWorks’ “The Soloist,” Fox’s “Australia,” Par Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road” and “Defiance,” and Sony’s “Seven Pounds.” That so many pics will arrive later in the season all but guarantees that awards season voters are in for a frenzied period as they try to see them all.

Some films are genuinely not ready. Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is undergoing heavy CGI and post-production work. Warner Bros.’ Clint Eastwood pic “Gran Torino” just recently wrapped. And the late-September tussle between distributor Harvey Weinstein and producer Scott Rudin over the release date of “The Reader” centered on the fact that director Stephen Daldry is doing post-production on the film while prepping the Nov. 13 Broadway launch of “Billy Elliot.”

Kudos-watchers are expecting a flood of films to start screening in mid-November — an unusually late time. And it’s possible that many are emulating “Million Dollar Baby.”

That Eastwood film was originally targeted for 2005 release, but popped in as a surprise launch in December 2004, without advance buzz or screenings — and proceeded to become the year’s big Oscar winner.

On a smaller scale, that tactic also paid off for Paramount Vantage, which kept “There Will Be Blood” under wraps until late in the year. The pic ended up taking home Oscars.

Many are hoping to emulate those successes, and to avoid the fate of films that peaked too early. Still,there hasn’t been a December opener that won in the past three years.

There’s also the question of subject matter. In past years, specialty divisions have set up early (August, September) screenings for films like “Finding Neverland,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno.” But those were feel-good movies with heart, and it’s harder to sustain five-month buzz for downbeat films.

For example, “The Assassination of Jesse James,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Into the Wild” and “Eastern Promises” all got Academy Award noms, but not in proportion to the enthusiasm those films had drummed up in the fall. Pics that opened in the first half of 2007, like “Zodiac” and “A Mighty Heart,” had plenty of fans, but by the December ballots ended up as Oscar no-shows.

Looming over this year’s kudos race are the same factors hanging over every other 2008 experience: the presidential election and the global economy. The latter factor has everyone in high-anxiety level. The results of the Nov. 4 election may lessen that, or contribute to it.

Either way: Will audiences (and awards voters) embrace a dark movie, because it so eloquently captures their mood? Or will they lean toward something uplifting? After the bleak violence of the last two best-pic Oscar winners, “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men,” Oscar voters may continue in that vein … or go in a whole other direction.

But even at that, where would they go? Many of the year’s big crowd-pleasers like “Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” also portray downbeat visions of the world. So if Oscar voters rebel against the pervasive darkness, does this mean “Mamma Mia!” and “High School Musical 3″ could become front-runners?

As for withholding their films, it’s possible some of the studios fear that the films aren’t as good as they’d hoped. Or maybe they’re just playing a waiting game.

Sometimes there are other motivations for the silence. Ron Howard started screening a cut of the Universal-Imagine pic “Frost/Nixon” early in the year, to get feedback from industry folk. But he didn’t want much of the press and wider audiences to see “Nixon” until after the presidential election, so people would consider the film on its own merits, not comparing/contrasting Nixon with Bush, McCain or Obama.

Even movies opening this month are waiting until the last minute. WB’s “Body of Lies,” which opens Oct. 10, withheld press screenings until Oct. 1. And Lionsgate’s “W.” screened Oct. 6, shortly before its launch on Oct. 17.

Ever since February 2004, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved the Academy Awards a month earlier — and every other awards show followed suit — everybody’s timing has been a little off.

Unlike past years, the studios in ’08 generally avoided using Telluride, Toronto and Venice to launch their awards hopefuls. (The glum reception at Toronto last year for U’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” must have reinforced their reluctance.)

But the studios’ gameplan may help some smaller films, which bowed on the fest circuit to good word of mouth, including U’s “Changeling,” Sony Pictures Classics’ “Rachel Getting Married” and “I’ve Loved You So Long,” plus “The Wrestler” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (the latter two acquired by Fox Searchlight).

There is some risk in the studios’ delaying tactics. Many voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences are working people with families and have a lot of obligations between mid-November and Dec. 26 (when nomination ballots go out). Since the screener DVDs will already be flooding in, it’s possible they won’t have time to attend a lot of screenings.

In the past, when one or two pics started screening late, such as last year’s “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the filmmakers and studios gambled on the fact that voters would make time for high-profile pics. That’s fine when there are a small handful of these films, but will Acad members have time for a dozen of them?

Other voting groups offer similar challenges. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members also have to catch up with a lot of foreign-language entries and TV episodes before casting their Golden Globe ballots. They will undoubtedly make time for big pics. But if they are seeing several films in a day, at what point does entertainment-overload kick in?

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