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Where, Oh Where, Are the Oscar Contenders?

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: October 27, 2004 | Publication: New York Times | Author: SHARON WAXMAN
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 27 - You know it's going to be a strange year for the Oscars when November is just around the corner and the talk in Hollywood is about "The Phantom of the Opera."

Almost no one has seen the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway musical about a disfigured genius at the Paris Opera House, which opens at the end of December. It has no stars to speak of, and its director, Joel Schumacher ("Batman & Robin," "Phone Booth"), is not exactly an Oscar habitué, never having been nominated before.

But the need for buzz, any kind of buzz, is very real, and a sure sign of Oscar desperation.

Most years, November and December bring a number of sweeping epics and ambitious dramas to woo Oscar voters, but this year only a few such films are left to open before the end of the year, including Martin Scorsese's "Aviator," about the reclusive magnate Howard Hughes, and Oliver Stone's "Alexander," about antiquity's charismatic conqueror. (And yes, Mr. Schumacher's musical.)

That has left the field open for smaller, less traditional films to vie for the five nominations to win best picture at the awards ceremony on Feb. 27. The art-house studios - and even the major ones - are busy trying to create momentum for movies that might be overlooked in other years. It is a strategy that has worked in the past for unconventional nominees like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Chocolat" in 2001, though this year there seem to be more candidates and more room for such candidates than usual.

Focus Features is pushing "Motorcycle Diaries," a Spanish-language film about the young Che Guevara, while Warner Independent is lobbying for votes for "A Very Long Engagement," a picaresque epic in French about World War I, starring Audrey Tatou. Other foreign films on the Oscar-gossip circuit include Pedro Almodóvar's "Bad Education," about sexual abuse and its effect on two friends, and Alejandro Amenábar's "Sea Inside," about assisted suicide.

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Given the open playing field, Warner Brothers has quickly hauled out Clint Eastwood's just-finished "Million Dollar Baby," about a woman, played by Hilary Swank, trying to be a boxer, in the hope of receiving Oscar consideration. And Lions Gate has just acquired "A Love Song for Bobby Long," an independent coming-of-age drama starring Scarlett Johansson and a gray-haired John Travolta, with the hope of stirring up the academy's interest.

None of these films have any real traction, at least not yet, though neither do most of the other serious art-house films that opened this fall. But in the absence of critics' lists or Golden Globe nominations, that can only be measured by the hazy gauge of Oscar handicappers, paid publicists and Hollywood power players on the chat circuit.

"I can think of a lot of really good films that were very well received in the marketplace, but there has not been the standout favorite of a film that has clearly galvanized all sections of the community," said Robert Newman, an agent at International Creative Management who represents directors including Jean-Pierre Jeunet of "A Very Long Engagement."

Oscar voters, he added, look for "important films, films that show the strength of the medium, the impact that this culture has." And there have not been many of those.

"I think it's terrific," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate. "I think the fact that there are no consensus choices anywhere makes this a most exciting awards season." He is nonetheless counting on "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, which his studio distributed, to get one of the five best picture slots. It would be the first documentary nominated for best picture. "It's not just a legitimate but a leading contender," he said. "There are no 800-pound gorillas. And in a spread-out year, it doesn't take that many votes to get nominated. You only need a core group of supporters to get nominated." The Miramax spin machine, usually going full bore at this point in the year, is functioning in slow-motion because of continuing uncertainty over the fate of the studio and its co-chairmen, Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The Weinsteins are negotiating with the Walt Disney Company to renew their contracts next year, but Disney has indicated it is unlikely to renew.

The Weinsteins are also throwing their weight behind "Fahrenheit 9/11," which they acquired from Miramax to distribute independently, and have hired their veteran Oscar campaigner Lisa Taback to work on the film.

Miramax postponed two of its major 2004 films, leaving "Finding Neverland," a Peter Pan story starring Johnny Depp, and "The Aviator" its main Oscar hopefuls.

Fox Searchlight appeared ready to take up the Miramax slack with a number of auteur-driven pictures: Bill Condon's "Kinsey," David O. Russell's "I ♥ Huckabees" and Alexander Payne's "Sideways." Of the three, only Mr. Payne's movie about a dumpy oenophile (Paul Giamatti) searching for his soul in California wine country, has been generating interest among critics and Oscar voters as a possible best picture nominee.

Of course, it's still early in the season. Many of these and other movies have not yet been released in theaters, scrutinized by the critics, tested by audiences or considered for Top 10 lists.

And the major studios have been pushing their own favorites, both offbeat and traditional, for best picture, including Disney's animated family movie "The Incredibles," Warner Brothers' Christmas tale "The Polar Express," and Universal's musical drama "Ray," starring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Sony has high hopes for "Closer," its star-studded drama directed by Mike Nichols, opening in December.

There's also Mel Gibson's unexpected blockbuster, "The Passion of the Christ," a hit around the country but a movie few in Hollywood admit to having seen. No one seems willing to rule it out, but no one is eager to rule it in.

With so many movies still in play and so few rising above the pack, an Oscar voter could be forgiven for being confused. Between "The Sea Inside," Mr. Amenábar's drama, and "Beyond the Sea," a musical biopic starring Kevin Spacey, and between "Beyond Sunset," a romantic drama with Julie Delpy, and "After the Sunset," a scrappy caper starring Pierce Brosnan, there's an awful lot to remember.

"There's a lot of contenders," Mr. Ortenberg said, "and that makes me concerned they may cancel each other out. There seems to be a lot of fall indie films with similar credentials, quality films but limited in their appeal. It may end up splitting a niche part of the vote."

Mark Pogachefsky, an Oscar-movie publicist, agrees, which is why he says he is hoping "Phantom of the Opera" - which he does not represent - is as good as idle gossip suggests. "Even though it's late, it's still early," he said. "It's all still sort of amorphous. Until we get through the next month, and things open or don't, get good reviews or don't - until it all coalesces - it seems like an open playing field."

He added: "My theory is you can't pick the one until you've got the field. It's always dangerous to pick the winner before you know what the five are."

 


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