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Oasis steps to Oscar dance

Palm Springs International Film Festival 2013

For nearly a quarter century, the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival was the last high-profile stop before first-round Oscar ballots were due, but that all changed this year when the Academy decided to push the nominee voting deadline up to Jan. 3 — opening day of the fest’s 24th edition.

While some speculated that the Academy date change would cripple the fest’s ability to attract star talent to its Saturday-night gala (a key opportunity for contenders angling for Oscar consideration to appear before an Academy-thick crowd) or possibly even force PSIFF to reschedule its 2014 edition to December to ensure relevancy, fest director Darryl Macdonald feels confident the event won’t have to budge from its date as the year’s first big sprocket opera.

“Nothing is certain except death and taxes, but all indications are that we are going to stay in exactly the same (January) slot because we have seen no effect in terms of the films and/or talent we have had access to,” Macdonald says.

While Macdonald admits he was initially “nervous” about the nomination date change, he says fest organizers “never really gave serious consideration to moving” the festival to an earlier date.

“I think everyone from our organizers to studio heads had questions about how it was going to play out, but for our part, we found that we were still every bit as integral to the (Oscar) process,” he says.

Along with screening 42 of the 71 official Oscar foreign-language film submissions, PSIFF honored its usual starry lineup of Oscar hopefuls, from Helen Hunt to Helen Mirren, at the gala.

Even though nom ballots are already sealed, Paramount awards strategist Lea Yardum says the gala is still a crucial awards-season play: “There are a lot of Academy members who live in Palm Springs. When it was announced in November that (director Robert Zemeckis) would be recognized at the fest, ‘Flight’ had already been out in theaters for several weeks, so it was a great piece of new news that helps fuel not only an awards campaign but also box office.”

As for the bounty of foreign-lingo offerings (which make up roughly 80% of the fest’s slate), the Academy announced its shortlist on Dec. 21, which dampens things for those no longer competing. “There will only be nine happy filmmakers (still competing), while the other 30-plus will just be showing their film for a festival audience,” says publicist Tatiana Detlofson, who repped five films in the foreign race, only one of which is still in the running. “Many of my filmmakers are debating whether to attend the Palm Springs festival. It’s a big commitment for a director to travel to the U.S., especially if they already came for AFI in October.”

But Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker, who is bringing “Amour,” “Rust and Bone” and “Fill the Void” to the festival, insists on the showcase’s continued relevance to the category.

“It seems to me that Palm Springs’ profile with foreign language films will still be strong,” he says. “The only possible drawback is that there are probably a few members on the selection committee who only got to see one or two films before the voting cutoff.” Still, he says, the festival reps an important showcase for distribs and overseas film orgs to expose their latest offerings to the industry.

In previous years, Academy Award nominations were typically announced amidst the Sundance film festival, with industry journos taking a break to cover the Oscar derby. Now, they happen on Jan. 10 — the second Thursday of PSIFF — which Macdonald sees as a good thing.

“While the emphasis might be slightly different this year, the end result is still the same,” he says. “(Palm Springs) is still a jumping-off point on the road to Oscar. While the festival can’t affect a nomination for a contender anymore, it will certainly affect the outcome if the film, actor and/or director make it into that magic circle of nominees.”

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