Fall festivals have long been a crucible in forging Oscar race winners, but changes to best picture nomination rules, new distribs aiming for acclaim and intense major studio competition are raising the stakes in Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York.

Prestige pics from Oscar faves Spielberg, Eastwood, Fincher and others are avoiding fests altogether, lying in wait with big marketing budgets that could easily drown out buzz from festival fare.

While marketing teams read the signs on where and how to campaign, their sister acquisition arms factor in a relatively new phenomenon: fall fests as a market for films that can be quickly released to grab noms or, as shown with “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker,” make a slow journey toward top honors.

For the past two years, the expansion of best picture slots gave smaller indies and bigger commercial films a better shot at one of 10 nominations. This year, a film needs to nab first-place votes on at least 5% of ballots in the first round in order to get a nomination, resulting in anywhere from five to 10 nominees.

“This year, a film needs around 300 first-place votes (5% of roughly 6,000 Academy voters) in the first round of voting. So the bar to entry has basically jumped 300% in one year,” says Dustin Smith, VP of acquisitions & business affairs at Roadside Attractions, whose “Albert Nobbs” is playing Telluride and Toronto. “It’s a huge leap that I think is going to cut a lot of smaller, independent films out of the best picture race.”

This ups the stakes for a host of specialty films, possibly making early widespread fest acclaim the most important factor for them in order to make the best pic cut. Yet getting there risks that each film might peak too early among voters as a result (as some feel the New York Film Festival opener “The Social Network” did last year).

Moving the Oscars back to late February/early March in 2004 moved up the awards season and increased press attention on fall fests. Focus on Telluride/Venice/Toronto campaigning is likely to keep growing as the Academy aims towards moving the ceremony to January, and as web coverage expands.

“There’s this new type of journalist — the Oscar blogger — now going to festivals that basically increases this whole phenomenon,” says Strategy PR/Consulting awards publicist Cynthia Swartz.

SPC co-prexy Tom Bernard is more optimistic than Roadside’s Smith, and with so many of his films taking prime festival slots, he has good reason to be: Both David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” are playing in newly created Gala nights at the tastemaker NYFF after hitting Toronto (where “Method” also has a Gala and Gus Van Sant’s “Restless” unspools). Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” will open NYFF after debuting in Venice. SPC’s two other 2011 releases, “Take Shelter” and “A Separation,” along with the still-to-be-scheduled “Footnote,” “In Darkness” and “Damsels in Distress” are also hitting fall fests.

“I think there are gonna be 10 (best picture noms),” Bernard says. “I don’t see anyone stopping (their campaigning) if they think they’ve got a chance.”

Fox Searchlight prexy Nancy Utley flew “Black Swan” from last year’s Venice opening night to a Toronto Gala and Oscar kudos, and her pickup of “Slumdog Millionaire” from Warner Bros. shortly before its Telluride debut epitomized the ideal way to harness that fest’s greatest asset: the big discovery.

“It was a completely unknown commodity and wasn’t on anyone’s radar, so that was a great place for it to pop up,” she says. This year, Searchlight scored the closing night NYFF spot for Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (after it hits Toronto and Telluride) and a TIFF slot for its Sundance pickup “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

The Weinstein Co., which started a “King’s Speech” rollout at Telluride/Toronto and took it through numerous fests to its Oscar win, is mainly focused on Academy catnip: period pieces.

For the moment, the loudest buzz appears to be around its silent film, Cannes pickup “The Artist,” unspooling at Telluride, Toronto and New York before hitting theaters Nov. 23 (“The King’s Speech” opened in that Thanksgiving week last year). “My Week With Marilyn” (featuring Michelle Williams as Ms. Monroe) scored the NYFF Centerpiece spot. Director-star Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” (which bowed all the way back in Berlin) plays at TIFF. All have 2011 release dates.

Among its fall fest lineup, Focus has high hopes for the Gary Oldman-toplined “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” in Venice and its Sundance pickup “Pariah” in Toronto. “Spy” skipping the Canadian fest raised some eyebrows, but a source close to the film says the main reason is that key talent won’t be available to accompany it there. And as Focus worldwide marketing prexy David Brooks notes, several of the studio’s top awards contenders (such as “The Kids Are All Right”) have opened before the fall fest season.

Paramount Vantage is bringing TIFF audiences its Sundance pickup “Like Crazy” and the Duplass Bros.’ “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Fox will do a specialty domestic release of its foreign-language Fox Intl. Prods. arm’s “Miss Bala” (and at least one more FIP film) after its TIFF and NYFF bows.

Smaller indies with awards aspirations include Oscilloscope (hoping Tilda Swinton’s turn in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” will wow Telluride, TIFF and the Academy as much as it did Cannes audiences), ATO (“The Woman in the Fifth”), Magnolia (Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” with Cannes actress winner Kirsten Dunst) and IFC/Sundance Selects (too many to mention).

Some relatively young wide release distribs are launching films that tackle serious topics at TIFF, including Relativity’s Sudanese child soldier drama “Machine Gun Preacher” and Summit’s cancer dramedy “50/50.”

Aside from Warners, which hopes word on its “Contagion” will spread in Venice, Sony is the only other major studio banking on fall fests in its awards and release strategy at press time. Director-star George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” has the prestigious Venice opening-night slot and a splashy Toronto Gala, as will its Brad Pitt-led “Moneyball.” Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” is also making a TIFF bow.

Studio acquisition teams will be not only looking for the kind of Toronto 2010 pickups that made for some indie summer box office hits, but potential awards-caliber material. There’s a chance at least one distrib will do a quick TIFF pickup/turnaround for the 2011 Oscars (as Searchlight did with “The Wrestler” in 2008, Weinstein Co. with “A Single Man” in 2009 and Lionsgate with “Rabbit Hole” in 2010).

“The reason it’s not done more often is that there are a lot of little things that have to click,” says TWC chief operating officer David Glasser. “The date has to be there, the talent has to be available, and enough lead time on the press and marketing to create the awareness — all those things have to go into your thought process in order to do it.” (Glasser took the opposite approach as a Yari Film Group exec, helping shepherd the 2004 Toronto pickup “Crash” to a May 2005 release and a 2006 picture Oscar.)

Lionsgate, Samuel Goldwyn, IFC and Open Road are among the distribs with plenty of room in November and December to sneak in an Oscar hopeful. There’s also CBS Films and Miramax (both with new acquisitions execs), or perhaps a distrib partnering with an eager P&A company in search of awards glory.

While it’s easier not to rush a film into theaters, it’s trickier to capitalize on initial fall fest heat before releasing pics the next year, and trickier still to keep the flame burning to the following awards season. On paper, at least, there are some potential candidates that could fill that “Hurt Locker”-style jog to the 2013 awards.

Still up for grabs at press time, and with execution-dependent desirability: Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan; Lasse Hallstrom’s drama “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” starring Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor; Luc Besson’s epic love story “The Lady”; Oren Moverman’s cr
ime drama “Rampart”; the Christopher Plummer vehicle “Barrymore” (for cable or theatrical); and two Rachel Weisz-toplined romantic dramas: Fernando Meirelles’ “360” (with Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins) and Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea.”

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