Awards hopefuls look to avoid holiday glut

A record number of high-profile films are taking advantage of an Academy rule that allows pics to compete for this year’s Oscars before their “real” opening next year — well after the holiday box office crush has subsided.

More than 10 prestige pics boasting big-name talent are launching one-week Oscar qualifying theatrical runs in Los Angeles or on both coasts this season, including Rodrigo Garcia’s “Albert Nobbs,” with Glenn Close and Janet McTeer; Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Tilda Swinton), Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” (Christian Bale), Luc Besson’s “The Lady” (Michelle Yeoh), Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” (Vanessa Redgrave), Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” (Woody Harrelson), Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” and Madonna’s “W.E.”

Qualifying runs are far from new; it’s a common, practical approach for less-than-commercial documentary and animated features — and a handful of narrative films — for decades.

What’s unusual this Oscar season is the number of small distribs using the technique, and their fervor as they try to gain the attention of critics, awards and audiences in the heat of December — without the struggle to keep the pics in theaters.

“For independents, it’s a way to release a film without duking it out with a big group of films spending heavily (to attract the) same audience in December and January,” says Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen. It’s a tactic that worked for Roadside and LD Entertainment on last year’s Spanish-language “Biutiful” (landing $5 million and an Oscar nom for Javier Bardem), and the companies are trying the same strategy with “Nobbs.”

“It costs an enormous amount to keep (a film) grossing during this period with all the competition, money that we think is too high-risk and may never come back,” Cohen adds, noting that he avoided being mowed down by higher-profile indies like “Black Swan” last year. “We feel more confident in a film both getting nominations and being profitable by doing the qualifying run.”

Oscilloscope Laboratories prexy David Fenkel sees the strategy as one of seeking attention, instead of sneaking past it. He attempted his first qualifying run the week of Dec. 9-15 with “Kevin,” whose lead Swinton has been figuring in year-end honors, before the film’s official January opening.

“The No. 1 priority for being an Oscar qualifier is to make sure a film has a consumer presence,” Fenkel says. “It’s important in the awards world that voters know it’s being endorsed by people outside the industry.”

Both “Kevin” and “Nobbs” chose to make a big media splash by playing weeklong runs on both coasts, though only a Los Angeles County run is required by the Academy. Each has scored Golden Globe and SAG acting noms, but both are gambling on Oscar noms that might not come.

“Everyone is shooting for the brass ring, but if you’ve gotten reviewed by the L.A. and New York dailies and other online sources, they’re not going to re-review them when you open the film for patrons four to 10 weeks later,” notes film historian and ReelzChannel host Leonard Maltin. “If you don’t get nominations, you risk losing more than you gain.”

Some pundits see the possible reward as being worth the risk. “They can concentrate all their cash on what they hope will be a later, awards-related surge,” notes New York Magazine’s Vulture movies editor Kyle Buchanan, “and if one doesn’t come, then at least they’ll have mostly avoided the big pile-up of dramas fighting for attention in December.”

Movie City News editor David Poland feels that in an online world where reviews are always available, the immediacy of newly posted or printed criticism is less of an issue. “Qualifying runs are a way for new indie distributors to inexpensively make a name for themselves, using the awards race to achieve legitimacy,” Poland says.

Wrekin Hill Entertainment is opting for a weeklong qualifying run for its late-year acquisition “The Flowers of War.” It used took the same tack with Peter Weir’s “The Way Back” last year, the company’s first.

But qualifying runs aren’t only an indie phenomenon; majors have sometimes tried them their auteur releases, notably Touchstone with 1998′s “Rushmore” and Paramount/DreamWorks’ 2009 “The Lovely Bones.”

Neophyte distrib Cohen Media Group is taking a conservative, traditional approach with its L.A.-only run for “The Lady,” but is saving its big push for a likely 25- 30-market release in late February or March.

Qualifying runs are also becoming a practical solution as more Toronto Film Festival acquisition titles emerge as Oscar contenders, since few can afford to risk waiting a year (as Summit did with its 2008 fest buy and 2010 picture winner “The Hurt Locker”). Fox Searchlight and others have managed same-year launches of Toronto pickups like “Shame,” but it’s far more cost-effective to cram for a week, as Millennium did with “Rampart” and CMG did with “Lady,” both bought at this year’s fest.

Toronto producers are getting savvier about the approach as well — in both of those sales, say insiders, agreeing on a same-year Oscar-qualifying run was part of what sealed the deal.

Other films — notably Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” — have managed to garner year-end kudos and noms, avoid award-season exhibitor gridlock and sneak through yet another Oscar loophole: playing their qualifying runs before debuting on VOD. (Both films quietly hit the remote Laemmle Fallbrook 7 in West Hills, Calif. — deep cover for Oscar hopefuls looking to avoid the VOD-limiting glare of a big release).

There have been periodic scores for pics with short qualifying runs over the years — acting noms for Sony Classics’ 2009 entry “The Last Station” and last season’s surprise Golden Globes winner “Barney’s Version” come to mind, while the Weinstein Co. scored some year-end honors for Redgrave in “Coriolanus,” and two Globe music noms for “W.E.”

But occasionally, a film’s year-end Oscar run is its entire run: When one thinks of an acclaimed actor’s Oscar bid for portraying J. Edgar Hoover, chances are Ernest Borgnine’s 2000 turn in the L.A.-opened-and-closed “Hoover” doesn’t come to mind.

Qualifying runs have often been used for films caught in studio politics. Key players and critics lobbied to give 1985′s “Brazil” and 2002′s “The Quiet American” a year-end shot, leading to Oscar noms for both. And author J. Hoberman notes that way back in 1949, helmer Robert Rossen had to plead with Columbia chief Harry Cohn to get an Oscar run for his politically charged “All the King’s Men,” which went on to win best picture and became the studio’s top 1950 moneymaker.

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