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Everyone’s a winner

Hopefuls abound in early November, when 'conventional wisdom' need not apply

In an annual ritual, pundits — studio execs, journalists, publicists and educated onlookers — guess about the virtues and shortcomings of current awards contenders and inevitably someone will sadly shrug, “It’s a weak year.”

As usual, 2004 handicappers are giving that sigh of resignation, but can they seriously believe it’s a weak year?

In the kudos mix are a musical, a documentary, a biblical drama, animated pics, foreign-language fare, and an array of epics and arthouse films. From “Beyond the Sea” to “The Sea Inside,” from “Kinsey” to “Christ” and (alphabetically) from “Alexander” to “The Woodsman,” the range of pics alone would indicate that this is a strong year.

The trick is to see whether “strong” can translate to “awards-worthy.” And the answer is a firm “maybe.”

People argue that Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters are old and conservative. But last year, they gave Oscar nominations to Keisha Castle-Hughes, Djimon Hounsou, “City of God” and “Lost in Translation.” And it wasn’t sentimental oldsters who voted Eminem and Roman Polanski into the winner’s circle two years ago.

Emboldened by this recent diversity, execs and filmmakers are touting the awards potential of films that a few years ago might have been considered too offbeat.

It’s fun to see the studios offering unusual best-pic possibilities: toons (“The Incredibles,” “Polar Express,” “Shrek 2”), foreign-lingo fare (“Bad Education,” “The House of Flying Daggers,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “A Very Long Engagement”) and docus (“Fahrenheit 9/11”).

Tom Rothman — co-chairman of Fox and founder of Fox Searchlight, which this year has a hot crop of pics getting awards buzz — points out that recent nominees are a sign of awards-voters’ openness and a good omen for the biz in general.

“If you look at our pictures this year, none of them would be considered traditional, old-fashioned ‘conventional wisdom’ pictures, but all of them are getting attention. I think that’s very healthy. The Academy should recognize everything from ‘Master & Commander’ (the epic that last year nabbed multiple noms, including best pic) to the four this year from Fox Searchlight; the breadth and heterogeneity is the best possible thing for the film business.

“It’s a wide-open year. That’s very refreshing because ‘conventional wisdom’ often makes for a very narrow view.”

For many in the film business, early November is the nicest part of the awards season, because at this point, every film still has a chance.

Since no awards voters have bestowed their blessings just yet, little films like “Birth,” “Stage Beauty” and “We Don’t Live Here Any More” stand equal to tantalizing-and-largely-unseen biggies like “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Lemony Snicket” and “The Aviator.” And the Hollywood-at-its-best biggies like “Spider-Man 2” are on equal footing with autumn’s arthouse “prestige” items. At this point, there are no longshots or shutouts, just hopefuls.

Adding spice to the 2004 mix: This is the first time in three years that, mid-November, all five best-picture slots are open. There is no “Lord of the Rings” installment to loom as the 800-pound gorilla pacing the race.

Last year by this time, “Rings,” “Mystic River” and “Seabiscuit” looked like best-film contenders, meaning there would be a scramble for the few remaining slots. This year, it seems like a wide-open contest for all five.

While there are certainly some huge 2004 tentpoles in contention, this year’s smaller films — foreign-lingo fare and indies — are stirring up heavy buzz in the top categories.

New Line embodies that shift. Domestic marketing prez Russell Schwartz, who helped mastermind the successful campaigns of the three “Rings” pics, says, “Last year, we were constantly fighting the battle of having ‘only’ a special-effects laden film with ‘The Return of the King.’ This year, we are proud to offer a group of films that are the polar opposite. They are all about auteurs working at the top of their game.”

And it’s not just the best-picture derby that’s drumming up interest.

In that long-ago era of the 20th century, the mention of documentaries caused yawns. Now it’s one of the hottest races around, jam-packed with contenders, both political and apolitical. The roster includes nonfiction studies of George Bush, John Kerry, Metallica, McDonald’s and surfers.

Oscar-nommed documaker Arthur Dong (“Sewing Woman”) says that documentaries have always been a vital genre; what’s changed is the public awareness of the entries.

A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences started taking steps, says Dong, to “support and nurture” theatrical docs. (The Acad changed its rules on docu voting and qualification and, for example, it’s kicking off an annual John Huston Lecture on Documentary Films on Nov. 10.)

“We’ve working hard to broaden the passion for documentaries to a theater-going public,” says Dong. As a result, Oscar attention is being bestowed on films people have actually heard of. And while some may think that 2004 has been a banner year for political docus, Dong asserts, “If you study history of documentaries, there have always been political ones. But this election year, there’s a hunger to experience political films in theaters with fellow citizens, so they’re doing particularly well now.”

The lead actor category is also crowded (the biopics alone account for a wealth of possibilities). And the feature-toon contest is only 3 years old, but it’s already one of the closest (and most fun) battles around.

The visual effects race is jam-packed with “Day After Tomorrow,” “I, Robot,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Van Helsing,” among many others.

This year, the overview of all the candidates offers some unique twists. Traditionally, Oscar voters tend to disregard sequels; “Rocky,” “Jaws” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” for example, all got awards, but their followups were ignored in kudos voting. This year, that longstanding trend may switch, thanks to admired sequels such as “Shrek 2,” “Spider-Man 2” and the new “Harry Potter” and “Bridget Jones” episodes.

But some things have remained the same as in the past. As usual, 2004 contenders fall into four categories: Big Buzz, Maintaining Momentum, Word of Mouth and Below the Radar.

The Big Buzz group includes films that were touted as awards possibilities even before they began lensing. This year, that group includes “Alexander,” “The Aviator,” “Closer” and “Spanglish,” with the anticipation based on the awards pedigrees of their filmmakers and stars. One of the continuing ironies of this category is that pics with the longest tubthumping are often the last to be screened.

As for Maintaining Momentum, plenty of kudos potentials open early in the year. After critics proclaim “The Oscar race has begun!” awards consultants have to work hard to ensure that voters sustain awareness of these films. “Before Sunset,” “Collateral,” “The Door in the Floor,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Shrek 2” fall into this category. A DVD release in the midst of awards season can help jog memories. “Gladiator,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Seabiscuit” were among those to successfully play that strategy.

Word of Mouth films sound intriguing on paper, but they’re only taken seriously when screenings begin. (It’s one thing when a studios tout the virtues of their own films, but positive buzz only counts when it comes from rivals). Pics like “Finding Neverland,” “Kinsey,” “Ray,” “Sideways” and “Vera Drake” are gaining fans (and buzz) as more people attend the screenings.

And then there are Below the Radar films, which seem to pop up out of nowhere and suddenly become front-runners. People were barely aware of “Being Julia” or “Hotel Rwanda” before they won audience acclaim at film festivals. The Paul Weitz-directed “In Good Company” started getting attention only a few weeks ago. And Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is a last-minute entry, shifting from a 2005 berth into a year-end slot.

The arrival of “Baby” helps to counterbalance a slew of pics that were slated for this year but moved into 2005, such as “The Upside of Anger,” “Fierce People,” “Proof” and “An Unfinished Life.” A few avowed firmly that Steven Spielberg would rush his 1972 Munich Olympics film into production so that it could open in December. As of now, the pic will start lensing in mid-2005 at the earliest. But the rumors are yet another reminder of the level of nervousness and hysteria that come with awards season.

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