Oscar hopefuls holding off

Contenders wary of tubthumping too early

It used to be that you couldn’t start tubthumping your Oscar movies too early. But thanks to the lessons of last year, many key contenders this year are holding back, wary of peaking too soon.

With some early fall releases having stumbled and the second wave of contenders yet to arrive, there are few sure bets this year.

And that’s how everyone wants it. The big question is which films will emerge from that void.

October marks a midseason hump, when one batch of fest movies seems to have been filtered out of the race — just a month ago, so many possibilities! — and a clump of year-end releases are still to be seen.

“It’s an odd year, because there’s a fall box office malaise,” says Sony PicturesClassics co-prexy Michael Barker, who has high hopes for France’s foreign-language entry, the animated “Persepolis,” which opens December 25. “The key is to make your film distinctive. The feeling is to look for the new.”

A raft of well-liked movies are taking the usual fall fest and guild-screening route. “The rule of thumb if it’s a crowd-pleaser,” says one Oscar campaigner, “is screen it early and often.”

That’s the plan for World War II romance “Atonement” and the Coen brothers’ Western “No Country for Old Men” as well as Jason Reitman’s relationship comedy “Juno.” Warner Bros. released the George Clooney lawyer drama “Michael Clayton” in October to strong reviews. And Universal is opening Ridley Scott’s well-tracking “American Gangster,” starring Denzel Washington as a Harlem kingpin, on Nov. 2.

All look likely to factor in this year’s Oscar race.

But several studios are pulling back on the Oscar hype. This course correction is a reaction to last year’s “Dreamgirls.” Concerned about the commerciality of the $75 million Bill Condon musical starring an all-black cast, DreamWorks marketing exec Terry Press promoted “Dreamgirls” with early footage at Cannes in May plus later show-and-tells in Los Angeles. Critical and online buzz, based on only 20 minutes of footage, started predicting in May that the film was the Oscar frontrunner, which may have hurt the pic in the long run.

The advance hype pushed the glitzy musical to a $155 million worldwide gross and eight Oscar nominations. But what many remember, more than its two Oscar wins, is that “Dreamgirls” failed to land a best-picture slot.

“There’s never an upside to positioning a big film as an Oscar contender,” says one Oscar promoter. “The media does that for them anyway.”

Last year, after Paramount and DreamWorks campaigned hard for Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and Warner Bros. flogged Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” and Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond,” another Leo DiCaprio Warners pic won best picture, with a campaign that started exceedingly slowly: Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

This year, more Oscar campaigns are taking it slow, following the model set by Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” a surprise late-2004 entry that went on to win four Oscars including best picture. “Traffic,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Monster’s Ball” were also late-breaking films fresh in Oscar voters’ minds when they filled out their ballots.

But waiting it out can be a risky gambit.

“For every successful movie that unveils at the last minute in December, there are 20 that don’t,” says Paramount Vantage co-prexy Megan Colligan. “It’s hard to make a lot of noise.”

But the bigger you are, the better. The names Mike Nichols, Aaron Sorkin, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman will pretty much guarantee that Academy voters will check out Universal’s Christmas opener “Charlie Wilson’s War,” for example. (Even Nichols’ disappointing “Closer” nabbed supporting noms for Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.)

This year, DreamWorks can afford to lay low on Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” because the R-rated Stephen Sondheim musical has a strong curiosity factor going for it. The movie, which opens on 1,200 screens Dec. 21, stars Johnny Depp, who has been nominated twice and never won. DreamWorks will start running “for your consideration” trade ads after the movie has been screened in early December; DVDs will be mailed in December.

Another Christmas release is the heart-tugging ’30s-era “The Great Debaters.” The Weinstein Co. has held back showing Washington’s second directing gig. (Like last year’s George Hickenlooper-helmed “Factory Girl,” there are rumors “Debaters” will barely finish in time.) Harvey Weinstein plans to push Washington in the supporting actor category for his role as a real-life college professor and debate coach in ’30s Texas, so he can avoid competing with himself in “American Gangster.”

(Historically, the Academy has a soft spot for actor-directors, who tend to be high-profile, so “The Great Debaters,” Ben Affleck’s Boston drama “Gone Baby Gone,” Sean Penn’s survival adventure “Into the Wild” and Robert Redford’s political treatise “Lions for Lambs” should all get due consideration.)

More challenging films can’t play hard-to-get if they want to achieve critical mass.

“It’s the tortoise and the hare: Slow and steady wins the race,” says Roadside Attractions’ Howard Cohen, who is timing the drama “Starting Out in the Evening,” starring Frank Langella, so that media attention will ideally peak after the film opens Nov. 23 and widens from 10 cities on Dec. 14, the same week the Golden Globe nominations are announced. Plan is to have the pic sustain enough momentum to play through January.

Indie pics have a challenge if they don’t get the right kind of attention early on. Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” and the quirky Ryan Gosling comedy “Lars and the Real Girl,” for example, have been receiving some negative notices (Metacritic.com averages: 65 and 67, respectively) and, “Elah” hasn’t caught on at the box office.

But there is always hope. Haggis’ “Crash” received mixed reviews but went on to win the best picture Oscar.

To be remembered at year’s end, earlier releases will need all the help they can get. Distribs will bang the drums to get pics popped into DVD players. That’s why Fox Searchlight sent out DVDs of its “Waitress,” “The Namesake” and “Once” early in September, before Academy screeners started to pile high.

But why did Searchlight wait so long to release writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ dark family drama “The Savages,” which boasts performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as warring siblings and drew raves at Sundance last January? Almost a year later, the film finally opens Nov. 30. That strategy worked for “In the Bedroom.” But Hoffman is also grabbing praise for his role in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and appears in a supporting role in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” leaving “Savages” to contend for attention with a pair of higher-profile turns by the thesp.

Would-be kudos contenders are hoping for help from such year-end groups as the New York and Los Angeles film critics, the National Board of Review and the Hollywood Foreign Press, which nominates and votes for the Golden Globes. Based on their reviews so far, movies likely to land in this coveted pantheon include “The Savages,” “Michael Clayton,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Atonement,” “American Gangster,” “The Kite Runner,” “Juno,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will be Blood.”

To build momentum, Vantage will start screening “Blood,” based on Upton Sinclair’s sprawling California oil saga, during the week of Nov. 12 before releasing it in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 26. It won’t widen until January.

“We need to sustain this movie over a long period of time,” says Vantage’s Colligan. “We have plenty of time to get the campaign up and going.”

Originally intending to open Marc Forster and David Benioff’s adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini bestseller “The Kite Runner” on Nov. 2, Vantage pushed the film back to Dec. 14 to protect three young actors from Kabul who might be in danger after the film is shown in Afghanistan. The studio is moving them to safer quarters at the end of their school year.

Some rival awards strategists wonder if voters might judge the filmmakers for possibly placing vulnerable Muslim children in harm’s way. “(But) ultimately the Academy does the right thing and tries to look at the movie as a movie,” says kudos consultant Tony Angelotti, who managed such campaigns as “A Beautiful Mind.”

The touchy “Iraq issue” hangs over some would-be Oscar contenders: Will enough voters watch these films?

Academy members will need to actually see “A Mighty Heart” if Angelina Jolie is going to have a fighting chance in the best actress race. And “Grace Is Gone,” “Rendition,” “The Kite Runner,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Lions for Lambs” will have to contend with that factor.

After last year, when Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” landed a surprising six noms, including foreign-language film, the 2007 Oscar race is looking more global than ever. Forster filmed “Kite Runner” in Dari in difficult Mideast locations; Picturehouse is pushing Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in the French hit “La Vie en rose”; Taiwanese director Ang Lee shot his gorgeously mounted “Lust, Caution” in Shanghai; New York artist Julian Schnabel shot “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” with a French cast.

But it remains to be seen how these films will fare with the wider Acad membership. “Pan’s Labyrinth” might have been an exception: It was one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and L.A. habitue del Toro is well-liked in the film community.

In the end, a keen sense of timing can make all the difference in an Oscar campaign.

While “Crash,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Seabiscuit” all looked to have peaked too early in recent years, all three rallied to land prominently on the Oscar radar.

And the last picture standing after all the noise dies down is often the one that wins.