2009-10 looking like unpredictable year in Hollywood

The dates are set for a flood of screenings, cocktail receptions and Q&A sessions, with plenty more to come. This means only one thing: Awards season is here!

So it’s time for our second annual series of awards columns, in which we will wander through the kudos world like a Tinseltown Margaret Mead, observing the strange rituals of the natives.

I’ve always liked awards because they are like time capsules, offering clues about the tastes and priorities of each era. As such, the 2009-10 season should be one of the craziest and most unpredictable in memory — because this has been a year of massive changes.

In the past six months, four of the majors have seen top-level exec shifts, reflecting the turbulence as everything changes: the backing (so long, hedge funds!), the salaries (au revoir, first-dollar gross!) and the marketing (auf wiedersehen, ad buys in consumer newspapers!).

There are changes in film budgets: The marketing for “Paranormal Activity” cost a gazillion times more than production; Is this an anomaly or an omen?). And there have been shifts in word of mouth (Twittering and texting were credited with “Bruno’s” 39% B.O. drop from opening day to Saturday) and in audiences’ viewing rituals (Redbox, Netflix, downloads, VOD have all found places in the release window).

So what does all this mean for awards season? Changes have begun; the question is whether these are just cosmetic changes or whether they portend fundamental shifts in the kudos business:

  • The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Producers Guild have expanded their best-pic races to 10 nominations.

  • There are so many films from female, gay, minority and foreign-language helmers that seem worthy of consideration this year that it’s possible the best-director noms might not include a single English-speaking, Caucasian, straight male. It’s not likely, but, for the first time, it’s possible. n In the days of “Bwana Devil” and “It Came From Outer Space,” who thought 3D would be a factor in awards consideration?

  • The list of companies on the kudos scene includes new players (such as the Bob Berney-Bill Pohlad Apparition), and newish ones (Summit, Overture), while established ones are stepping up (IFC, Magnolia) and one of the old mainstays is seriously altered (Miramax).

Every past awards season has been keyed to one premise: Who will win the big prizes? But this year, there’s another question: What will the shows look like? The February Oscarcast, under Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, showed kudocast folks that you can break with tradition to the benefit of both those in the auditorium and those watching at home.

Perhaps inspired by this radicalism, the Golden Globes will have a host for the first time since 1995. The Academy Awards will have two hosts, and has shifted its Governors Awards to a separate ceremony. The Independent Spirit Awards have traded venues and dates. The Critics Choice Movie Awards have a new name and a new location. And the Gotham Awards noms were announced Oct. 19 via Webcast.

So the scene is set for what could be an exciting, breaking-all-rules, wacky season. One hopes so: Innovations and surprises could re-energize the entire ritual.

But don’t bet the farm on it. In changing times, people sometimes take comfort in the familiar. So it’s possible that kudos voters will retreat to things that are retro and safe this season.

The TV biz offered a recent reminder that it’s not easy to change long-entrenched traditions, as naysayers shot down CBS-ATAS’ proposal to present eight Emmys off-air.

And while 10 best-pic noms could alter the entire mood of the season — adding comedies, docus, toons and foreign fare into the usual mix of “prestige” films — the 10 slots could simply mean more of the same. (Don’t forget: The AFI, Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes have been saluting 10 for a long time.)

Will things change? Who are the frontrunners and dark horses? Don’t look to this column for predictions. We are impartial, we are Switzerland. And by that I mean WWII-era neutral Switzerland, not Polanski-in-jail Switzerland or let’s-study-their-healthcare-system Switzerland.

And when our Swiss friends are at the center of two hot-button controversies, you know the world has turned upside down.

So enjoy the awards season and keep watching the skies for major changes!

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