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The Wind Shifts and So Does the Hunt

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DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press says the producers of “American Beauty,” her studio’s Oscar front-runner, have never let her forget that when she first saw the trailer for “The Green Mile” last fall, she was ready to throw in the towel. It didn’t seem possible that DreamWorks’ unheralded, downbeat film about multigenerational alienation could possibly compete with an uplifting prison drama starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks and respected director Frank Darabont.

“After seeing that trailer I told the filmmakers that it was all over,” Press recalls. “They might as well give out the statuettes now.”

But if Tuesday’s Oscar nominations prove anything, it’s that pokey conventional wisdom rarely keeps pace with today’s unpredictable pedal-to-the-metal pop culture. Last summer, Sen. John McCain was far back in the presidential pack, the St. Louis Rams were 100-1 Super Bowl longshots and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was an obscure piece of British TV fluff.

What a difference six months can make. As the Academy Award season began to take shape, veteran Oscar handicappers were predicting best picture nominations for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Angela’s Ashes,” “Man on the Moon,” “The Hurricane,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “The Insider” and “The Green Mile.” Of all the early favorites, only “Insider” and “Green Mile” made the cut. But neither film is considered a favorite in the wake of Tuesday’s Oscar results, with “Green Mile” especially hurt by Hanks and Darabont being denied Oscar nominations.

The new favorites, with Oscar ballots going out March 1, are “American Beauty,” which topped all films with eight nominations; “The Cider House Rules,” which earned seven nominations; and “The Sixth Sense,” which has six nominations and the added advantage of being a crowd-pleasing hit that also gave audiences a spiritually uplifting emotional wallop.

The emergence of “Cider House Rules” as an Oscar contender also sets up a provocative rematch between DreamWorks and Miramax. The rival studios’ hotly contested Oscar race last year--with DreamWorks’ favorite “Saving Private Ryan” losing out to Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love"--prompted an ugly war of words over Miramax’s Oscar-spending campaign.

Once again, DreamWorks has the early Oscar favorite. “American Beauty” has the most nominations, usually the most reliable indicator of eventual best picture success. But Miramax has a formidable record of Oscar triumphs, with two wins in the past three years, for “The English Patient” in 1997 and “Shakespeare in Love” in 1999.

Many Predict a War of Words

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In tradition-bound Hollywood, Miramax is still viewed as a maverick upstart whose aggressive Oscar campaigns have pushed the envelope of gentlemanly competition. Many Hollywood insiders already predict a bare-knuckles best picture battle that will set new records in terms of advertising and negative campaigning.

Miramax senior executive Mark Gill dismissed as “ludicrous” charges that Miramax has outspent its rivals. “You cannot in any circumstance buy a nomination,” he says. “If that were true, the studios would win every year, because they can always outspend us. I’ve gotten just as many calls from people saying that we must be scaling back our campaign for ‘Cider House’ as calls saying that we were really going after the nomination.

“If we were overspending, then why didn’t we get a best picture nomination for ‘Ripley’ [a Miramax co-production with Paramount], which we were just as aggressive in supporting?”

DreamWorks’ Press admits that it feels “a little terrifying and a little thrilling” to be the front-runner again this year. But she insists the studio won’t engage in any of the name-calling and gamesmanship that marred last year’s race.

“We’ll run our campaign, do what’s best for the movie and not repeat the mistakes we made last year,” she says. “The biggest mistake we made was to engage in a media war of words over the issue of spending money. This year we want to let the quality of our movie speak for itself.”

The new favorites took different paths to winning nominations. DreamWorks released “American Beauty” in mid-September, eager to win the film an audience before the deluge of better-known holiday films. It also sent out an early mailing of academy screening tapes in mid-November so academy members who hadn’t seen the film in the theaters could watch it over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“We knew we had something when so many reviewers mentioned the film as a best picture candidate,” Press says. “Then it survived the hype and buildup of all the traditional Christmas pictures. We worried that no one would remember us, but when so few of the other films panned out, we knew we had a foundation that no one could take away from us.”

From Longshot to the Top 5

Miramax started “Cider House” much later in the year, opening it Dec. 10 in New York and Los Angeles. It wasn’t in wide release until early January and is still at a modest $23 million in box-office revenues. The studio aggressively advertised a wide array of academy screenings.

By the end of January, “Cider House” had been transformed from a longshot to a strong Oscar hopeful. Miramax was so confident it would get a best picture nomination that the studio had booked late-February academy member screenings before the nominations were announced. Gill says the film, now on about 800 screens, will expand to 1,500 screens on Feb. 25.

“We’re running a campaign that’s very similar to what we did with ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘The English Patient,’ ” Gill says. “But ‘Cider House’ really reminds me of ‘The Crying Game.’ When it got its Oscar nomination, it had made $23 million, almost exactly where ‘Cider House’ is at now. And it ended up making $63 million. We might not do that well, but I think it’s realistic for us to at least double our gross.”

Many believe that Disney’s “The Insider,” a huge box-office disappointment, will still struggle to find a broader audience, despite its seven nominations. “Everyone is really proud of the movie,” says former Disney Chairman Joe Roth. “But it’s one of those rare times when adults loved a movie, yet they couldn’t convince their friends to go see it, any more than we could convince people in marketing the film.”

The one thing everyone agrees on is that this year’s best picture competition looks like a real horse race. Miramax’s Gill sees “American Beauty” as the nominal favorite, but quickly adds: “Nothing is guaranteed.” Other Oscar watchers believe that “Sixth Sense” could be the year’s strongest dark-horse contender. No one is counting on conventional wisdom anymore.

“When you’re in academy season, you’re in a living, breathing, totally unpredictable thing,” Press says. “Look at what’s happened since September. The winds change. The movies that looked like locks have disappeared. So you can bet on this--none of the academy members’ minds are made up.”

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