The Contenders 2011

With only a handful of films yet to be seen — albethey pics of key interest — awards season is beginning to take on its usual frenzied pace in the lead-up to the Feb. 24 Oscarcast.

Though a few late-December releases, like David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” have yet to be completed, most of the major contenders have debuted to industry audiences, including Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” which has had pop-up screenings around the country and will begin industry screenings in earnest this week.

But something feels slightly different this Oscar season. The race is still wide open, and there’s no consensus about any front-runners — or even the number of best picture slots, thanks to a rule change — unlike this time last year when “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” had charged to the head of the pack. Sure, summer releases like “The Help” and “Midnight in Paris” are holding, but most insiders say it’s anyone’s game to win.

“I like the fact that there’s no front-runner,” says one veteran consultant. “It’s more exciting, but it makes campaigning more stressful. You have to campaign even harder.”

While smaller films work hard to stand out in any season, this year has left many distribs feeling that voters are looking deeper into the field of contenders.

“Your biggest marketing tool is the film itself,” says Oscilloscope’s David Fenkel, who has “We Need to Talk About Kevin” in this year’s conversation. “And when movies are really strong, they end up rising to the top. Since there are no inevitable locks, voters are looking for the best achievements and that’s the exciting part.”

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