The 2007 Oscar race seemed to mirror the presidential primaries: too many candidates, no clear frontrunners, a prolonged campaign season and each new tabulation offering conflicting info on voter preferences.

As a result of the awards-season uncertainty, Tuesday’s announcement contained several surprises but no shocks. But there was one clear conclusion: The film business has changed, with the majors seeing their specialty units becoming the stars of their kudos strategy. The strong showing of Paramount Vantage and Miramax, which shared “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” is emblematic of the shift.

This Oscar race is only the third for the reinvented Miramax under topper Daniel Battsek. And Par Vantage made a big splash last year in its first race with “Babel,” and it is making a bigger splash this year.

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Fox Searchlight has had three best pic noms in the past four years. Topper Peter Rice pointed out that, in a year of dark films, the characters in “Juno” are in a tough situation, but that the film is “joyful.”

He also said that director Jason Reitman, scripter Diablo Cody and star Ellen Page are all under 30. Perhaps summing up all the changes in the film and kudos biz, he said, “It feels a little bit like the kids have crashed the party.”

The last time the majors led was in 2003, when Focus Features’ “Lost in Translation” was the only specialty film among fellow nominees “Master and Commander,” “Mystic River,” “Seabiscuit” and the third “Lord of the Rings” movie.

Scott Rudin, who’s a producer of “No Country for Old Men” and exec producer of ” There Will Be Blood,” said Tuesday that “in many cases, the majors have given up the business of ‘serious’ movies, and the rise of specialty units has made possible movies that wouldn’t have been made — or wouldn’t have been made this well — just a few years ago.

“People were ready for movies dealing with morally complex, big serious themes — but films that do so in ways that are totally entertaining.”

James Schamus, whose Focus has received noms for “Atonement” and “Eastern Promises” this year, agreed that the Oscar shifts reflect changes in the business.

“The specialized market has matured. The Academy and the public in general are more open to challenging movies than ever before. It’s not a case of indies sneaking in there: The business is making big movies with big challenges, and the public is interested. So filmmakers can make films for mainstream audiences without compromising themselves.”

He said these movies are sometimes tough to swallow and may not do blockbuster numbers, but they are hits and reaching wider audiences than ever before.

It’s interesting to note the type of serious fare that audiences and Academy voters are embracing. A year ago, the slew of then-upcoming Iraq-topical films, like “Lions for Lambs,” seemed like shoo-ins for Oscar attention.

As it turns out, they made a modest showing. However, the dark and violent films that dominate the noms may reflect the world’s trepidations about the war (as well as the economy, environment, terrorism, etc.)

Many films with multiple mentions are somber works mourning lost values (both personal and communal), with longing about the way things should have turned out. The best picture slate is diverse — English romance, suburban comedy, corporate thriller, cops-and-robbers actioner and what’s basically a one-man epic. And while the filmmaking is often dazzling and some of the pictures have happy endings, all have undercurrents of regret and longing for lost opportunities.

The dark mood has been seen in Oscar noms for the past several years. But maybe it’s more noticeable this year, as strike awareness hangs over everything.

Coincidence or not, there was a lot more uncertainty in this awards season than in any other within memory. Usually by the end of December, it’s easy to pinpoint six or seven films competing for the five best-film slots. This year, there were far more, with few sure bets.

For example, “Atonement” rallied Tuesday with an impressive seven nominations after a roller-coaster season when it scored the most nominations in the BAFTAs and Golden Globes (winning best drama film) but was pretty much ignored in guild nominations.

Conversely, Warner Bros.’ “Michael Clayton” and Searchlight’s “Juno” did well in the guild noms but were not heavy-hitters in the critics’ voting. “Clayton” ended up with seven Oscar noms, and “Juno” earned four.

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