Yule niche hitch

Star vehicles jam arty pix as Oscars loom

Specialty distribs, which look to the holiday season with visions of kudos dancing in their heads, may find the going a little tricky this year.

For one thing, since few Oscar favorites have emerged, the majors will be aggressively pushing late releases as last-gasp hopes for Oscar-nom glory. Also, the holiday season is unusually full of star-studded studio releases of the sort likely to gain Academy attention on one front or another.

Nonetheless, niche pic distribs will be crossing their fingers for dozens of late-year limited openers.

“The start of the awards season affords the opportunity to launch pictures successfully in Los Angeles and New York on the basis of strong reviews,” enthused Lions Gate distrib topper Tom Ortenberg.

Leaping release

Last year, specialty distrib Sony Pictures Classics’ Mandarin-language “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” began a platformed release in early December that played well into the new year; the film gathered four Oscar wins, including foreign-language pic.

The approach has become a well-established pattern for specialty distribs, and enthusiasm for the strategy is as high as ever this year, since there is no single standout in the late-year specialty field. Take, for example, the following:

  • Miramax, which pursues awards nods with unique fervor, has five limited bows — plus wide openers — carefully lined up throughout December like so many precious gems.

  • Disney has Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” skedded for platformed expansions through 2001’s final three weeks, with a star-heavy ensemble cast repping a possible kudos magnet.

  • Basking in early raves from the fest circuit, USA Films’ “Gosford Park,” from director Robert Altman, starts an Academy-consideration run in Gotham and L.A. Dec. 26.

  • Warner Bros.’ “Charlotte Gray” looks to build on the adult-skewing fan base of Sebastian Faulks’ novel about Nazi-occupied France with a staged offensive that begins Dec. 28 with limited rollouts in Gotham, L.A. and Toronto.

  • Sony Classics believes its top candidate for a foreign-lingo pic nod this year is “Dark Blue World,” a WWII romancer from Czech helmer Jan Sverak (“Kolya”) that unspools Dec. 28 in L.A. and Gotham.

  • Lions Gate hopes to exploit early good notices for thesp turns and other creatives on its Anthony LaPaglia/Geoffrey Rush starrer “Lantana,” an Aussie production that won several Australian Film Institute kudos.

Distrib’s also anxious to attract favorable attention for the script penned by Will Rokos and Milos Addica for soon-to-bow “Monster’s Ball,” a Lions Gate-produced prison drama toplined by Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger and Sean Combs. “Lantana” hits L.A. and Gotham mid-month, and “Monster” mashes the same markets a couple weeks later.

“Our enthusiasm on both pictures begins with the terrific performances by the cast, but they both have the opportunity for even wider recognition,” Ortenberg said.

But he’s not counting any chickens just yet.

“There will be many pictures that open with thoughts of awards recognition, but then come and go very quickly because their respective distributors misjudged them,” he said.

Majors’ movies

But the small fry must battle the majors, which have loaded December with prestige pics and star vehicles. The list includes the following:

  • Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s Eleven,” which sports a cast full of A-list thesps.

  • New Line’s visually lustrous tentpole fantasy “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” set for near-worldwide release just before Christmas. Distrib also has Sean Penn/Michelle Pfeiffer starrer “I Am Sam.”

  • Golden Globe (but never Oscar) winner Jim Carrey toplines Warner Bros./Castle Rock’s “The Majestic,” an Academy-friendly romantic comedy that unspools nationwide Dec. 21.

  • Sony has the much-hyped Will Smith starrer “Ali” bowing wide Dec. 25.

  • Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz topline Paramount’s “Vanilla Sky,” from Oscar winner Cameron Crowe.

  • Universal/Imagine’s “A Beautiful Mind” — set for a limited bow Christmas Day — is a cerebral drama with top production values repping a perfect vehicle for star Russell Crowe, who, along with oft-middlebrow helmer Ron Howard, is likely to fetch Academy attention.

  • Miramax, famous for sending out lots of year-end specialty pics, has a limited Christmas launch set for its high-profile Kevin Spacey/Judi Dench starrer “The Shipping News.”

Surveying the holiday season, Miramax marketing topper Mark Gill cautioned: “In the absence of a great movie, you (will fail). The competition is extreme.”

Receptive auds

Still, Sony Classics veep of sales Tom Prassis said specialty distribs know that sending a pic out in December means it will play to receptive auds.

“It’s certainly a good time to launch, because there are a lot of people looking for something to go see,” Prassis said. “People tend to go to the movies more than once this time of year, just as they do in the summer.”

Meanwhile, Miramax’s specialty platformers include several possible foreign-language Oscar contenders. Those include offbeat French-lingo pic “Amelie,” which debuted in November and is skedded for expansion throughout December.

“In almost every case, we’re looking at these (end-of-year) pictures as worthy of consideration for awards or critical citations,” Miramax’s Gill said. “I wish it were true that there was also a tremendous focus on movies in this terrain in March or May or June, but it just isn’t so.”