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Lessons learned from war

Screener battles, accelerated season factors in Oscar noms

HOLLYWOOD — The great Screener Wars pitted the indies vs. the majors. It turns out both sides won.

The studios had big pics that they pushed hard during awards season. And while some of those titles were snubbed in the BAFTA and SAG nominations, the big guns got their share of attention in Tuesday’s Oscar noms.

But so did the indies, with Newmarket scoring two key noms in the actress race, Lions Gate earning four noms and “smaller” pics such as “Lost in Translation,” “City of God,” “21 Grams” and “In America” doing well.

Both sides agreed that the screener battles and the accelerated awards season were factors in this year’s noms. And, only hours after the nomination announcements, folks were making plans for next year.

Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein said on Tuesday that if he had to do it over again, he would have released “Cold Mountain” in November. Many others predicted that the usual December logjam may be a thing of the past.

Lions Gate’s Tom Ortenberg said he believes the November mailing of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Cooler” screeners helped those films’ award chances. And he’s confident about sustaining awards momentum next year for “Dogville,” which his company will launch in March.

In other words, both indies and majors think that there are some lessons — and reason for optimism — after this year’s war.

Film pundits on Tuesday said the shorter Oscar season may have helped early openers like “Lost in Translation,” “Seabiscuit,” “City of God” and “Whale Rider” (though it may have hindered late releases like “Cold Mountain”).

And the screener battle may have raised consciousness for smaller movies such as “Thirteen,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Pieces of April” and “American Splendor” that might otherwise have slipped under the radar.

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Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker said, “I think that because of the date change and because of the screener ban, Academy voters this year were particularly conscientious about seeing as many movies as possible, and that led to a broad spectrum of movies being nominated.” The distrib scored four noms, including an unexpected original-song nom for French animated pic “The Triplets of Belleville.”

“If anything, the screener debate told Academy voters to be very careful of just bowing to the big blockbusters that were readily accessible on thousands of screens,” Barker added.

Focus Features co-prez James Schamus on Tuesday similarly praised the breadth of the noms: “The biggest visions of Hollywood moviemaking, such as ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Master and Commander,’ stand next to ‘Lost in Translation.’ ” (Focus released both “Lost in Translation” and “21 Grams.”)

“The controversy refocused attention,” Schamus explained. “It’s about artists and professionals celebrating the greatest achievements of the year. The battle clarified how deeply we as an industry feel about embracing the true breadth of artistic achievement across budgets and cultures. The controversy clarified that the Academy sees its role as embracing the best of cinema.”

Though execs at Miramax were disappointed that “Cold Mountain” failed to surface in key races including best pic, they were happy about the nods to pics like “City of God,” “Dirty Pretty Things” and “The Barbarian Invasions.”.

“The fact that so many movies were recognized — and so many types of movies, including foreign-language — I think is gratifying for everybody who distributes independent films,” said senior Miramax publicity exec Cynthia Swartz. “There’s always been independent films nominated, but what’s different this year is the sheer number of smaller movies being recognized.”

Whatever factors reinvigorated this year’s Oscar race, many observers are interpreting the broader field of films nominated as evidence of Academy voters’ increasing sophistication.

“I have the sense voters really did look at the performances rather than the hype,” said Bob Berney, president of Newmarket Films. In addition to securing a nod for Golden Globe winner Charlize Theron in “Monster,” the distrib’s “Whale Rider” scored an unexpected actress nom for New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes.

“Given that Keisha was 11 when she made the film, we were pushing for supporting actress,” Berney added. “But clearly, they looked at the performance and felt she had to be considered a lead. Both our films were underdogs that could have been tough films in the marketplace, but both connected with audiences and with Oscar voters.”

Oscar voters also extended their broad tastes to craft categories, which often are the domain of big-budget studio fare.

“There were so many huge sweeping epics from the studios this year that for a small independent movie like ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ to be acknowledged for cinematography, art direction and costumes really speaks volumes about the quality of the work and about the Academy’s ability to recognize a diverse array of pictures,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing.

“I think what this says is that nobody is telling Academy members what is a fait accompli,” he added. “They are looking very specifically at each contribution and each performance.”

While Ortenberg disagreed that the screener debate was a significant factor, he conceded Lions Gate’s decision to send out screeners before Thanksgiving may have benefited “Pearl Earring” and “The Cooler,” which landed Alec Baldwin a supporting actor nod.

Miramax also acknowledged the early distribution of “City of God” tapes helped keep the Brazilian saga in voters’ minds.

Given the compressed Oscar season, the success of that January release, along with several other early openers, may prompt distribs next year to shoot for earlier dates for awards-season heavy hitters.

“I do think people will re-address that next year, and getting awards attention for films in those December slots has certainly become more of a challenge than it has been in the past,” Miramax’s Swartz said.

“But you always have to balance the commercial needs of a film, because (December) is such a great play time,” she continued. “I don’t know that if we had released ‘Cold Mountain’ any earlier, we would have done the great business we’ve done with it. Maybe by opening at Christmas you hurt your chances with Academy voters, but distributors now are going to have to start making those difficult choices.”

Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said it was “disappointing” that “Cold Mountain” failed to snag a best pic nomination. But he was optimistic the seven noms will have a positive impact on the pic’s box office.

The pricey pic was a gamble. “Would I do it over again? Yes. But I’d open it in November.” Anthony Minghella’s Civil War drama hit theaters Dec. 25, with screeners going out around that time, making it arguably the final film of the year to reach voters, only narrowly surfacing before Oscar ballots were mailed out Jan. 2.

The company’s yin-yang showing Tuesday reflects how Acad voters spread the wealth wide. Even without a best-pic nom, the company scored 15 noms, marking the third consecutive year that it’s led all domestic distribs.

Though execs are disappointed to be left out of the best-pic quintet — after 13 best pic noms in 11 consecutive years — Miramax scored in other races, notably with Brazilian “City of God” helmer Fernando Meirelles in the directing slot. In the last 12 years, the company has received 14 directing noms plus at least two acting nods each year and, since 1989, 30 nominations in the writing categories.

In other words, it got mixed messages from the Oscar noms — as did every other indie and major. So the fact that there are no easy conclusions may help effect some changes in the pic biz.

Ultimately, this year’s Oscar noms may serve to help spread prestige releases throughout the year. Such a move stands to benefit not only distributors jostling for attention in the year’s most competitive frame; it also could find favor with quality-starved moviegoers and critics weary of wading through mediocrity for much of the year and then overloading on excellence in the final two months.

Lions Gate will test those waters this year with its March 26 release of Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” for which the distrib intends to mount an aggressive 2004 awards campaign, including a push for star Nicole Kidman.

“I fully expect that film to resonate with awards voters, regardless of its early release,” Ortenberg said. “I do hope that the number of films released early in 2003 that got Academy recognition will encourage all studios to release their awards-caliber pictures in the first 10 months, so there’s not such a logjam in the last six weeks of the year.”

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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