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Specialty divisions enter Oscar race

Boutique films make mark on festival circuit

Specialty divisions have figured more and more in the Oscar plans of big parent studios over the decade as the boutiques tend to score multiple noms but not necessarily win in the big categories (i.e., picture, director). This year’s race is anyone’s guess, as some of the studio heavyweight pics have yet to be seen, while the smaller fry have paced the field with some worthy, serious candidates that have already made their marks on the festival circuit.

FOCUS FEATURES

Coming off a year that yielded not a single nomination, Focus Features leaps back into the fray in 2007 with a full slate of contenders.

Charging into the season, the studio boasts lead actor hopefuls in Don Cheadle (“Talk to Me”) and Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises”).

Studio also has lush period piece “Lust, Caution” which Focus honcho James Schamus co-wrote with Ang Lee at the helm.

Terry George’s “Reservation Road” may serve up some noms in acting, while alsoo eying other major categories.

Festival sensation “Atonement,” from “Pride & Prejudice” director Joe Wright, may draw noms in acting, direction, writing, cinematography and other below-the-line categories.

FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Last year, Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Last King of Scotland” burned up the awards circuit, and, this year, the Peter Rice-led unit has another nice helping of small pics vying for recognition in all major categories.

Sundance favorite “Waitress” from the late Adrienne Shelley is looking for voter traction while summer hit “Once” — another Sundance favorite — could be a sleeper.

Searchlight also has drama/comedies Jason Reitman’s “Juno” and Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages.”

Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” is also on the Searchlight nomination docket.

WARNER INDEPENDENT

The Warner specialty label has a trio of pics that aim to gain awards traction. Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” is seeking noms across the major categories, while pic stars Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron are getting good notices.

WIP is also touting the Leonardo DiCaprio-backed documentary “The 11th Hour” and Alison Eastwood’s directorial debut “Rails & Ties.”

MIRAMAX

Miramax Films has a quartet of pics primed for the Oscar race — although last year’s coronation of “The Queen” may be hard for the mini-major to top.

Early-year release “The Hoax” could bring acting honors, especially with a DVD push. There’s also “Gone Baby Gone,” the Dennis Lehane novel adaptation helmed and co-penned by Ben Affleck that has garnered praise for theps Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan.

Julian Schnabel’s French-language “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” could build upon its Cannes success — and get over the language barrier — in several major categories, including acting, directing, picture, cinematography and adapted screenplay.

Another Cannes sensation, “No Country for Old Men,” from Ethan and Joel Coen, hopes to find room across all of the big categories as well.

PARAMOUNT VANTAGE

Par Vantage tasted success last year with “Babel,” and has a full plate this year. Already paving a path in awards season is “Margot at the Wedding” and Cannes player “A Mighty Heart.” “Heart’s” DVD release may boost interest in the summer release.

Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” presents a great opportunity across several major categories, including acting, directing and music.

Waiting in the wings are Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and Marc Forster’s “The Kite Runner.” Both films are adaptations and may tap into the big categories across the board.

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

After a hot 2006 with Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” Sony Pictures Classics has Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth,” his first time behind the camera in more than a decade.

Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” is also in play while Anand Tucker’s “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” — a hit at Edinburgh — is in the hunt.

Two films in the mix outside the major categories from Sony Classics are Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter doc “Man From Plains” and animated fest hit “Persepolis” will be seeking s spot in the foreign-language and animated feature categories.

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