Season key for kudos contenders

In the movie realm, summer is often characterized as a time for superheroes and popcorn movies, but in fact, it has become a key season for kudos contenders, partly due to the Oscar date change and the expanded best-film category.

From 2001 to 2005, only eight pics that earned Oscar nominations for best picture, director or actor-actress bowed between May and August. But pics that debuted in that same frame from 2006 to 2011 garnered 22 noms in those categories.

Of those, 15 came in the past two years, including “The Hurt Locker.” Summit Entertainment’s Iraq war pic bowed June 26, 2009, and went on to win seven Oscars, including the big prize.

And last year’s crop of best picture nominees featured four diverse summer releases — sequel blockbuster “Toy Story 3″ and original concept hit “Inception” and indies “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone.”

Today’s limited release of Summit’s “A Better Life” joins other contenders in getting awards season off to a precipitous start. In recent years, more kudos-worthy fare is creeping onto the summer sked, migrating from the overcrowded confines of fall and winter.

For studios, skedding “serious” adult pics in the summer is more about counterprogramming against blockbusters than awards strategizing.

“We don’t necessarily date things because we think a movie is award-worthy or it isn’t,” said Focus Features prexy Andrew Karpen. “Our strategy is about figuring out the best time to release and let the audience find it, and if it’s lucky to get awards and recognition, that’s great. The most important thing is finding the right time for the film. Audiences are looking for different kinds of films and the summer is a real business opportunity.”

The difference is that now, there’s much less fear that a summer date will dampen kudo prospects. “The idea that awards films have to be released in the fall is not necessarily always the case,” Karpen said.

And over the past few years, studios jumped on splashy homevid release parties to keep their pics on the awards radar.

“Every film has its own path and needs to go its own way,” said 42 West awards guru Cynthia Swartz. “The most important thing is for a film to get seen, so sometimes opening in the summer is great because it gives people the chance to see your film. Academy members do have long memories, and a summer release means you can come back with a DVD campaign in the fall.”

Summit is hoping to work its summer magic again with “A Better Life,” the Chris Weitz-directed immigration drama. Pic stars Demian Bichir (“Weeds”) as an illegal immigrant from Mexico who works as a gardener in Los Angeles in an effort to keep his son (Jose Julian) off the streets. “Better Life” could expand its appeal if it clicks with Hispanic auds, the fastest-growing moviegoing aud in the U.S., but that demo tends to prefer tentpole and family fare.

Focus is looking to repeat its summer success in the wake of “The Kids Are All Right,” which opened July 9, 2010, won the Golden Globe for a musical or comedy, and was nommed for four Oscars. Focus opened Mike Mills’ “Beginners” on June 3, with Christopher Plummer receiving excellent notices for his perf as a terminal cancer patient who comes out of the closet to his son, played by Ewan McGregor.

Focus has also had success over Labor Day weekend with the smart adult thrillers “The Constant Gardener” and “The American,” which may be the template for releasing John Madden’s long-delayed “The Debt” that weekend. Focus also has Lone Scherfig’s “One Day,” an adaptation of David Nicholls’ bestselling novel, opening Aug. 19. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess star as very different friends who reconnect with each other on the same day over a period of 20 years.

One place where summer pics traditionally figure in the awards picture is for the top VFX prize, and this year’s overstuffed calendar includes plenty of contenders, including Par’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Captain America” and “Super 8,” WB’s “Green Lantern” and “Harry Potter,” 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men: First Class” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and Universal’s “Cowboys & Aliens.” In fact, along with Par’s May release of “Thor,” that could nearly be the VFX bakeoff shortlist right there.

August’s femme-friendly “Julie and Julia” slot is occupied by DreamWorks’ adaptation of the bestselling novel “The Help,” which bows through Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label Aug. 12. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer are front-and-center in the well-received trailer, and Allison Janney could also grab attention as Stone’s mother.

And as some audiences search for more serious fare during the summer months, a handful of Sundance movies will be competing for indie traction. The highest-profile release will likely be Fox Searchlight’s “Another Earth,” which serves as a star-making vehicle for Sundance It-girl Brit Marling, who also wrote the sci-fi drama. Other Sundance-approved summer releases include Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Guard” and “Higher Ground,” the latter of which marks the directorial debut of Vera Farmiga; Roadside Attractions’ “The Future,” written and directed by Miranda July; and the Weinstein Co.’s newly-retitled “Our Idiot Brother.” Lionsgate adds “The Devil’s Double,” which, according to early reviews, seems poised to catapult star Dominic Cooper to another level.

(Shelby Hill and Michelle Weiss contributed to this report.)

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