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The Oscar derby is running late this year. Whereas the festival circuit has reliably launched roughly half the best picture candidates in the recent past, most of the favorites have yet to be seen this year, leaving the race wide open.

The first of the thoroughbreds only recently stepped onto the track, with the London premiere of “Frost/Nixon” on Oct. 15, followed by the San Francisco bow of “Milk” on Oct. 28. Several other contenders won’t publicly debut for a month or two. These include “Australia” in November, followed by “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Defiance,” “Doubt,” “Gran Torino,” “Last Chance Harvey,” “The Reader,” “Revolutionary Road” and “Seven Pounds” in December.

The suspense is high because the international fest circuit, from Sundance to Toronto, has been surprisingly thin this year, offering up a few dark horses, but no front-runners: “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “I’ve Loved You So Long” and “Elegy” emerged in Berlin; “Changeling,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Che” got started in Cannes; “The Wrestler” and “Rachel Getting Married” stirred Venice; and “Slumdog Millionaire” wowed Telluride and Toronto. All have a chance of figuring somewhere in the race, though few are regarded as serious best picture candidates — unless all those late bloomers disappoint.

To understand how unusual this year’s race is, consider:

  • In the past five years, since the Academy Awards moved to late February, 19 out of the 25 best picture nominees had been seen somewhere in the world by the end of September. From the fest circuit, Venice premiered six, including “Atonement” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Cannes and Telluride contributed three apiece, Toronto debuted two (not counting “Crash,” which showed there a year early) and Sundance launched “Little Miss Sunshine.”

  • Fest influence reached its peak in 2005, accounting for all but three of the noms in the year’s top seven categories.

  • Despite the perception that Christmas always brings a glut of Oscar heavyweights, just four movies that world premiered in December have secured best picture nods in the past five years. By contrast, in 2003, the year prior to the date switch, four of the five nominees premiered in December.

So Oscar campaigners find themselves in uncharted territory. “Sitting in Hollywood, I can tell you that there’s no great momentum behind anything yet,” confides one studio chieftain.

Without festival accolades or critical plaudits to steer them toward the quality contenders, can voters absorb so many weighty movies at the last minute? Clint Eastwood has already shown he can get the Academy’s attention with a late release, suggesting “Gran Torino” could still follow in the footsteps of “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

Such last-minute debuts certainly don’t give voters the chance to cogitate and digest the more subtle or enduring qualities of their work — as happened, for example, with “The Pianist,” which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or and deepened its support over the months that followed. Universal is clearly hoping Eastwood’s “Changeling” can show the same durability.

The absence of higher-profile Oscar contenders gave indie pics such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler” a chance to grab some oxygen at the fall fests. “‘Slumdog’ basically was the movie of Toronto. But would that have been true if the big dogs had been there?” wonders one exec.

Overture has sought to maximize “The Visitor’s” fest exposure, hand-carrying it to nearly every corner of the globe: Its festival tally stands at 14 in the U.S. and 15 more overseas.

So why are the favorites arriving so late? “I honestly don’t know why they are all later this year,” says Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek, who releases “Doubt” on Dec. 12.

Cynics suspect it betrays a lack of confidence by the studios in their contenders. But in most cases, producers and distributors insist the films simply weren’t ready sooner. The writers strike affected both “Milk” and “W.,” for example.

Battsek says “Doubt” wasn’t finished until mid-October. “If you believe in a film and it is ready, you screen it. But if you have a mid-December release date, it’s not always sensible to screen it at a festival in early September,” he explains.

One film that deliberately ducked Toronto was “Frost/Nixon,” choosing to open the London Film Festival a month later instead. The thinking was that the movie was British enough (co-produced by Working Title and based on a play by Peter Morgan) to generate strong hometown support.

“The idea was originally to go to Toronto, but you don’t really gain anything from that,” says a person close to the movie. “We don’t have big movie stars, so it might not cut through with so many other films in Toronto.”

So, have the studios grown nervous of exposing their wares at the festivals? There’s certainly a feeling that instant Internet blogging, offset by a shrinking pool of veteran critics from many U.S. newspapers, has magnified the risk. “There are so many mixed agendas now that you can’t control,” one exec says.

There’s a weariness factor at play, too. An awards campaign that starts at Venice in August is tediously long and expensive. Both “Atonement” and “Brokeback” got publicity boosts from their Venice premieres but ran out of steam by the time the Oscars came around.

That could give the festival circuit back to the indies who really need them.

“‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ is one of those movies that has undoubtedly benefited from the festival circuit,” comments Battsek, who acquired Mike Leigh’s movie in Berlin and has since toured it around several events. “It wasn’t on anybody’s radar a couple of months ago, but there’s a real rolling effect that builds and builds.”

“Elegy” embraced a similar route. “Berlin gave us the ability to plant a seed and nurture it and let it grow,” says Lakeshore’s David Dinerstein. “We wanted to get a jump in the way that ‘Away From Her’ did, to give people time to discover our film.”

Remember the tortoise and the hare? This year’s late contenders will have to wait until February to discover whether the outcome, and the moral, remain the same.