Can “The Manchurian Candidate” be this year’s “Seabiscuit?”

A year ago, “Seabiscuit” looked to be little more than an expensive gamble in the late summer — a period drama starring a horse and set in the Depression, positioned as a high-class alternative to the usual summer fare.

Everything broke right for “Seabiscuit.” By the time it was over, the pic had cumed $120 million domestically, sold an impressive 6.7 million DVDs and snagged seven Oscar noms, including best picture.

In hindsight, opening in late July helped “Seabiscuit” develop early Oscar buzz and its DVD holiday-season release helped keep the momentum going.

“The dates worked out very well,” recalls Gary Ross, who wrote, directed and was a producer on “Seabiscuit.” “In the late summer, you had clear sailing for an adult film to have time to build after its opening. Then there was a nice symbiosis between the DVD release and awards season.”

One Oscar consultant gives kudos to Ross and Universal for astute handling. “‘Seabiscuit’ was aimed very well at the Academy with its underdog and pro-Roosevelt themes, so it was very smart of Gary Ross to expand the story beyond just horse-racing.”

Paramount is opening “Manchurian Candidate” on the last weekend in July, the same weekend as “Seabiscuit,” with an impressive cast led by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. The updated remake of the 1962 classic — set in the near future with the brainwashing taking place during the Gulf War — is directed by Jonathan Demme.

In line with its new “swing for the fences” approach, Paramount is rolling the dice. The town is already starting to identify serious upsides and downside factors:

On the upside:

  • A strong pedigree with Demme, Streep (two Oscars and 13 noms, the most by any thesp), Washington (two Oscars and five noms) and heavyweight producer Scott Rudin.

  • July and early August can be an effective time to counter-program popcorn fare with serious drama, as shown in the past by “The Fugitive,” “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Unforgiven” and “The Road to Perdition.”

  • Heightened political consciousness as “Candidate” opens a day after the start of the Democratic Convention. This is one film likely to benefit from controversies over George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

  • Lingering affection for the original, best known for John Frankenheimer’s hard-edged direction and memorable performances by Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, who received an Oscar nom.

Then the downside:

  • It’s opening against M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village,” also produced by Rudin and likely to have fairly widespread appeal. DreamWorks will open another adult-oriented action film, “Collateral” on the following weekend.

  • It’s a remake, making it more difficult to impress older moviegoers and the Academy.

  • It’s a political thriller, a genre which has seen only a few successes beyond “Air Force One” and “Clear and Present Danger.”

  • Demme’s last film, “The Truth About Charlie,” was a serious disappointment (and a remake of “Charade,” another well-liked film from the early 1960s).

Despite some rivals’ skepticism, Paramount is unabashedly bullish. It’s already positioning “Manchurian Candidate” as a crowdpleaser, with execs asserting test screenings have gone exceptionally well.

“We believe there’s tremendous opportunity at the back end of summer to get something out that’s more thoughtful and serious with an intelligent storyline,” notes vice chair Rob Friedman. “We see it as something that will appeal to everyone over 20. There’s enough action to draw in the young males and Denzel’s shown he has that kind of drawing power with ‘Training Day’ and ‘Man on Fire.'”

Plans are not yet set for a DVD of “Manchurian Candidate” but it’s a likely candidate for a holiday season release.

Oscar prospects are unclear at this point, since the next seven months will obviously bring a lot of potential contenders.