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Early birds take award perch

A 2008 Oscar preview

This year’s ceremony may not have happened yet, but it’s never too early to start thinking about next year’s Academy Awards contenders.

Already, the race for the 2008 kudos is taking shape — albeit fairly informally — as execs position their prestige projects for this year. A number of films with gravitas and/or something of a kudos pedigree qualify for initial consideration.

At this distant remove, though, it’s hard to predict what’s going to break out next winter when awards season starts. Case in point — Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which has lapped the field with a Producers Guild win for feature and SAG victory for ensemble cast.

“When we bought ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ at Sundance a year ago, it wasn’t with the idea that it would be an awards type of film,” admits Searchlight distribution topper Steve Gilula. “We thought it was a very good movie that had very good commercial potential, and that was about it. We did not anticipate at all that it would be getting awards like this.”

Gilula concedes there’s no obvious Searchlight candidate for next year’s Oscars, although some observers point to “Margaret,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Anna Paquin as a teen dealing with her responsibility for a fatal accident. Pic also stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick.

That said, two 2007 dramas due to open in November have sprinted to the front of the pack, at least in the minds of those not currently overwhelmed by this year’s awards: “The Kite Runner” and “American Gangster.”

DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage’s “Kite Runner” is based on Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel about a man’s struggle to redeem himself against the backdrop of political turmoil in Afghanistan. It’s produced by Scott Rudin and helmed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) from a David Benioff script.

Universal’s “American Gangster” stars Russell Crowe as a cop and Denzel Washington as a crime boss facing off over heroin hidden inside the coffins of U.S. soldiers returning from Vietnam. Written by Steve Zaillian, directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Brian Grazer and Scott, pic has “the feel of a latter-day ‘Godfather,'” one producer says. “I think the Oscar is its to lose at this point.”

Another obvious point for establishing awards potential comes from films in the same vein as those that have drawn Oscars in the past. Among those titles there’s New Line’s “The Golden Compass,” which echoes “The Lord of the Rings.” “Compass” is based on the first book of a trilogy about a fantasy world created by a British author (Philip Pullman), and it reps a massive bet for the mini-major.

Universal’s “The Golden Age” closely resembles Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth.” It’s a follow-up to that 1998 pic, with Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush reprising their roles and Kapur again at the helm. Clive Owen has joined the cast as Sir Walter Raleigh.

There’s a pair of Jane Austen films — Miramax’s “Becoming Jane,” with Anne Hathaway as the author in her early years co-starring Maggie Smith and Julie Walters; and Sony Classics’ “The Jane Austen Book Club,” in which six people find their lives starting to resemble her novels. The latter, written and directed by Robin Swicord, features Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Emily Blunt and Maggie Grace.

Then there’s a couple of contempo political films with automatic Oscar potential: New Line’s “Rendition,” directed by “Tsotsi” helmer Gavin Hood and starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep; and Par’s “Stop-Loss,” with Kimberly Peirce directing a tale of an Army sergeant (played by Ryan Phillippe) who’s forced to return to Iraq for another tour of duty.

Several other films look like possible awards season candi-dates simply because of the pedigree of those involved, such as Warner Independent’s “In the Valley of Elah,” Paul Haggis’ first directing project since “Crash,” about an Iraq war vet who disappears. Pic toplines Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones.

Focus Features has Ang Lee’s latest pic queued up: Shanghai-set WWII thriller “Lust, Caution.” Distrib also boasts “Evening,” from a script by Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”), starring Streep and Glenn Close; “Reservation Road,” with Terry George directing a cast including Jennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix; and Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” toplining Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

Beyond “The Kite Runner,” a slew of prestige pics will emanate from Par’s various labels. DreamWorks/Par has “Things We Lost in the Fire,” toplined by Oscar winners Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, and Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” with Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen. There’s Paramount’s fantasy “Stardust” with Robert De Niro, Peter O’Toole and Michelle Pfeiffer.

And Paramount Vantage has new films helmed by Sean Penn (“Into the Wild”), the Coen brothers (“No Country for Old Men”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” with Daniel Day-Lewis), Noah Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding,” starring Nicole Kidman) and Michael Winterbottom (“A Mighty Heart,” with Angelina Jolie).

Among the other early contenders: Sony’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson; New Line’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” directed by Mike Newell; and Miramax’s almost-2006 release “The Hoax,” from helmer Lasse Hallstrom, starring Richard Gere.

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