Variety’s Timothy Gray sorts out the questions we should be asking right about now:

But even at the halfway point, there are questions.

Will the early buzz sustain for Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E” and WB’s “The Dark Knight” and Heath Ledger?

What effect will the Clint Eastwood double whammy — November’s “Changeling” and the December bow of Warner Bros.-Village Roadshow’s “Gran Torino,” in which he stars as well as directs — have on kudos? Similarly, Scott Rudin, who was in the winner’s circle with “No Country,” has two December openers — but will he have a third with “The Reader,” whose opening date is not yet set?

Benicio Del Toro won Cannes’ actor award for Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” but will it find a U.S. distrib this year and, if so, in what form will the two-part film be released?

And then there are … other questions. In the last few years, the song category has been dominated by tunes that were production numbers (as opposed to those end-credit or background songs). So does this bode well for Disney’s “High School Musical 3” and Focus’ “Hamlet 2”? (If the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” can win, there may be hope for the latter pic’s “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”)

Interestingly,he also declares the bottom line more important than placement in the awards race:

A few years ago, film-awards shows followed the lead of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and moved their ceremonies a month earlier, but it’s clear that the studios are not similarly shifting their release schedules to accommodate the moves. Bottom-line thinking comes first, and release dates are more focused on box office than on awards.

The decision to move the Oscars themselves was a bottom line decision as ABC wanted to take advantage of the February sweeps positioning. I have long thought this to be a fatal mistake by the AMPAS but no one listens to me. The Oscars were more suited to a later air date because the weather starts to turn, moods begin to lift, there was a rhythm to the way films were rolled out, served up to the critics, then the public and then the AMPAS voters had time to mull things over before putting in their choices. This led to ridiculous amounts of campaigning, it’s true, but it keps the Oscars much more relevant.

Now, everything is sandwiched in during the holiday break and voters are expected to cram all of those movies in during a time when they’d rather be home chilling out watching Girls Gone Wild. But, as Grey astutely points, the Oscars start to matter less and less and box office more and more, especially these days.

The smaller films, therefore, with more to gain from the awards season (indies, actors’ showcases) are the ones we see front and center during the awards race; the bigger movies never really get a chance to be seen by the public but are ravaged by critics and bloggers long before they even get to the public, this because with the shortened date the only way to get Oscar buzz, if you have a Christmas release, is to either be Clint Eastwood, or have your movie seen by bloggers.

I was reading the archives of one prominent blogger in this field a while back and I discovered that even by Christmas of 1997 he wasn’t even thinking Titanic for Oscar. It was Boogie Nights and LA Confidential. Titanic is still one of the most powerful Oscar steamrollers to come along in the last few decades and it wasn’t even mentioned as an Oscar contender by Christmas? While this person is a notoriously bad Oscar predictor it is still worth mentioning that it was just a different ball game then. Had Titanic been on the radar now, it would have been likely chewed up and spit out long before it even hit theaters. The press on the film was bad – everyone thought it was going to sink like the big ship itself. The public made that movie an Oscar juggernaut, not those who wrote about it. This is going on one blogger’s archival info, but I haven’t completely done my research to see if anyone else had Titanic named as a major contender before Christmas. My point, though, and I do have one, I think, is that with the Oscar race, perception is everything. Winning an Oscar has very little to do with whether a film or a person “deserves” to win or not; history susses out the good from the mediocre. Perception, though, is tainted by a hungry industry of bloggers and a weary public who, more and more, seem to shell out their dough for crappy films. So where is the money is the Big Oscar Movie?

The smaller movies that get Oscar attention aren’t big box office draws and thus, we get the same lament every year lately: no one wants to watch the Oscars because no one has yet seen the films that keep winning all of these awards. They won’t catch up with them until months later where the long tail will take effect. Alas, it’s a conundrum.

Gray then lays out what’s to come:

July: It’s an f/x extravaganza with New Line’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (going out through WB); and Universal’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

August: DreamWorks’ “Tropic Thunder”; U’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”

September: Disney’s Spike Lee movie “Miracle at St. Anna”; Focus’ “Burn After Reading,” the follow-up film from this year’s triple Oscar winners, Joel and Ethan Coen, that stars George Clooney and Tilda Swinton; Miramax’s Fernando Meirelles pic “Blindness”; “The Appaloosa,” directed by and starring Ed Harris (New Line, via WB); Paramount Vantage’s “The Duchess,” with Keira Knightley.

October: Lionsgate’s Oliver Stone bio-politico-comedy-drama “W.” starring Josh Brolin; WB’s Ridley Scott film “Body of Lies,” written by William Monahan (“The Departed”) and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio; Fox Searchlight’s “The Secret Life of Bees” (Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah); Universal-Spyglass’ Greg Kinnear film “Flash of Genius,” with Marc Abraham making his directing debut; and Sony Pictures Classics’ “I’ve Loved You So Long,” with Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” with Anne Hathaway.

November: Paramount-DreamWorks’ “The Soloist” (Joe Wright directing Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.); Focus’ “Milk” (Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn); Fox’s “Australia,” from Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman; MGM-Sony’s “Quantum of Solace,” with Daniel Craig returning as 007; WB’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”; and the Weinstein Co./Dimension’s “The Road,” an adaptation of the book by Cormac McCarthy (who penned the novel “No Country”) that’s going out via MGM and stars Charlize Theron and Viggo Mortensen.

December: Miramax’s “Doubt” (starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced by Rudin); Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett under helmer David Fincher (Warner Bros. has the pic overseas); Paramount Vantage-DreamWorks’ “Revolutionary Road” (Sam Mendes, DiCaprio, Winslet and Rudin again); Par Vantage’s “Defiance” (Ed Zwick, with Craig); Disney’s Adam Shankman-helmed “Bedtime Stories” with Adam Sandler; Lionsgate’s Frank Miller-directed “The Spirit”; Sony’s “Seven Pounds,” reuniting Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino (who directed “The Pursuit of Happyness”); Universal-Imagine-Working Title’s Ron Howard-helmed “Frost/Nixon.”

Frost/Nixon, Miracle at St. Anna, Revolutionary Road, The Soloist, Doubt are the titles that are leaping to mind at the moment. Let’s hope they aren’t chewed up and spit out before it’s their time to crown.

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  • Sam Juliano

    I agree with you Sasha in that the March awards may be blessed with better weather and mood upswings, but the downside is that by that time the issue of what is “best” has been played out through a plethora of awards shows, starting with the National Board of review and commencing with over a dozen critics’ awards, the Globes, the Broadcast News and the BAFTAs. While it is true that all of these occur (with the exception of the BAFTAs) BEFORE the late February date as well, the later date enhances the perception that this is all old news, and might dim any real interest with many.

    But its still a tough call.

    As far as the significance of the awards (again alluded to here in this excellent piece), well if not for anything else, they grant many viewers the “disicpline” to go out and see all the high-profile prestige pictures, that perhaps they may not have had the impetus to see, at least not in any set time frame.
    Prior threads have amply dealt with the pros and cons of the worthiness of the Oscars, so I won’t be redundant here.

  • D. D.

    I agree with you Sasha that « winning an Oscar has very little to do with whether a film or a person “deserves” to win or not ». After some of the flagrant debacles of AMPAS in recent years (Brokeback Mountain’s questionable loss in March 2006 comes to mind!), I think it is wise to put the relevance of the Oscars in perspective.

    Some films are simply landmark films, true “cultural phenomenon” that have a profound impact with the media and the general public, with or without the Academy’s top prize. These “iconic films” are at times the ones that are awarded the Oscar for Best Picture but, in many instances, they are not. Every movie does not need to be a blockbuster to have real historical importance and a significant impact. Some of these films are not necessarily “great films” either, but one thing is sure, they “made history” in some cases because of the subject matter and political implications, at times because of their originality and mass appeal, or simply due to the timing and moment in our society’s evolution when they were released.

    Here are a few titles that come to mind: The Exorcist, Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars, ET, Thelma & Louise, Titanic, Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain, etc. There are of course a number of other films that could be added to this list because they also have “made history”. These films were genuine “movie events” – they were watersheds in the history of American cinema and became cultural references for the future.

  • Erik Beck

    Ah, but Sasha, what you forget about Titanic was how important the Golden Globes were. The Globe nominations came out the day before it was released and so, on Friday, 16 December (date might not be completely right) Titanic was released with ads in the paper touting it’s leading 7 Golden Globe nominations. That was the first big clue, not the box office. It was evident the day it opened that it was headed for a lot of Oscar nominations.

  • Anfernee

    I believe you have to have been nominated for an Academy Award to be a member. When I look at the list of people who actual have the right to vote I vomit.

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