Forget frontrunners -- the nominees are still jockeying aggressively

It’s easy to assume that “The Artist” has this awards season wrapped up, given the number of critics awards and guild honors that the film has collected since November, not to mention its sweep of the BAFTAs last weekend. Most pundits have concluded with a dramatic yawn that a best-picture Oscar is all but certain for the black-and-white silent movie.

Yet for a season that supposedly ended as soon as the nominations were announced, there’s still an awful lot of campaigning going on ahead of Tuesday’s 5 p.m. ballots deadline — and not just for the film that would seem to need it the least.

While campaigner extraordinaire Harvey Weinstein has his foot firmly planted on the gas for “The Artist,” he’s keeping apace with formidable competition from “The Help,” “Hugo,” “Moneyball,” among others. All of the films that are still working hard on the trail are doing so because fortunes can turn quickly, even this late in the game.

The most recent example was last year, when “The Social Network” collected dozens of awards before “The King’s Speech” ultimately won best picture.

In 2010, the box office might of “Avatar” wasn’t enough to beat out “The Hurt Locker,” even though many said at the time that voters would take the opportunity to reward a film that was good for the industry’s coffers. And many Oscar watchers were shocked when in 2005 “Crash” bested “Brokeback Mountain,” which had previously won the PGA, DGA, Spirits, Globes, BAFTA and Critics Choice awards.

Complicating matters is some voters’ tendency to return ballots just before the deadline. A campaigner who’s also an Academy member said that most voters try to see every nominated film and make informed choices, which makes this last week of campaigning crucial. “Voters like to spread their vote around when they like more than one movie,” the campaigner explained.

“It’s anyone’s year” is how another kudos consultant described this Oscar season.

That’s why even though common wisdom dictates that across-the-board major guild awards for “The Artist” would seem to give the Weinstein Co. reason to relax, nothing is certain until the ballots are in the hands of PwC’s accountants.

“Artist” star Jean Dujardin, who has been highly visible since October, hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down since he won the Screen Actors Guild trophy in January, most recently making a “Saturday Night Live” cameo and still getting to London in time for the BAFTAs the next day. And director Michel Hazanvicius, producer Thomas Langmann and composer Ludovic Bource appear to have spent more time in Los Angeles than Paris over the last four months.

The perceived frontrunner, which has a cast and crew of relative unknowns, has to contend with George Clooney and Brad Pitt making themselves readily available on the campaign trail. Two films apiece give the best actor nominees — each considered due for wins — plenty of talking points.

Another awards consultant put it a little more bluntly: “Films that have benefited in nominations are the ones that can get out the big guns. There was so much of George and Brad that it changed people’s opinions on the films.”

That’s not even taking into consideration the amount of press Martin Scorsese has done for “Hugo.” Academy voting precedent holds that the film that leads in noms is most likely to win best picture, yet the campaign for “Hugo” is still going strong.

The not-so-incidental plus that sets “The Artist” apart is having Weinstein steering the campaign. While Pitt and Clooney shake hands and sit for interviews, Weinstein is making sure his “Artist” crew is doing everything from making a spoof with Funny or Die to receiving the first “Made in America” award from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for being the only best-picture nominee shot in L.A. Clever positioning makes up for what the pic lacks in star power.

With the deadline to submit ballots just days away, it’s clear that no one is taking anything for granted in this year’s Oscar contest.

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