Gauging the Oscar odds

As the head of the entertainment division of Sitrick and Co., a leading crisis-management public relations firm, Allan Mayer is an expert spinmeister on showbiz scandal and disaster. He's helped Rush Limbaugh deal with the fallout from revelations that he was addicted to painkillers allegedly obtained from his maid. He's been aiding R. Kelly, who is facing 21 felony counts of possessing child pornography. He also advised Paula Poundstone after the comedian's children were put into foster care following her pleading no contest to charges of child endangerment.

So what's Mayer doing working as an Oscar consultant for New Line Cinema's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"? Has a rival film studio been spreading malicious gossip about a Hobbit payola scandal? Is the National Enquirer at work on an expose about the movie's sexed-up special effects? Or, to be slightly more serious, have the Oscars become such a high-stakes face-off that studios need damage control experts to help their films navigate the often bumpy ride that leads to Academy Awards glory?

"Even though we're best known for crisis management, what we fundamentally sell is strategic counsel," says Mayer, a former magazine editor and political reporter. "I think our involvement shows that the Oscars have an importance beyond peer recognition of talent. For a lot of studios, Oscar nominations have a huge economic importance. And for New Line, it's a big issue of pride -- they bet the company on this movie."

New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz says he learned of Mayer from the work he did for Universal Pictures as a troubleshooter for "A Beautiful Mind," the Russell Crowe-starring biopic that won best picture in 2002, despite being dogged by charges that it had sanitized the troubled life of mathematician John Forbes Nash.

But Schwartz insists he didn't hire Mayer because he was worried that "The Lord of the Rings" would be a target of the dirty tricks that have become an all-too-familiar occurrence in recent Oscar campaigns.

"We feel Allan is a terrific strategist who has the ability to get our movie off the entertainment pages and stimulate broader kinds of editorial coverage," says Schwartz, who signed Mayer to an exclusive yearlong contract this March. "It's an out-of-the-box choice, but we feel that because he's an outsider, he can help us try to find a unique way to position the movie."

What Schwartz is too cagey to say for public consumption is that New Line is under tremendous pressure to win an Oscar for the final installment in the Peter Jackson-directed "Rings" trilogy. The studio's huge gamble in bankrolling "Rings" has paid off at the box office. But Oscar plaudits have largely eluded the series, whose first film earned 13 nominations, but only had six nominations the second time around, with no major-category wins either time. Many Academy members gave short shrift to the second film in the series, perhaps deciding to reward the final installment.

The heat is on. New Line needs a victory, both as a vindication for Jackson and for the studio, which has never won a best picture statuette. So the studio is leaving nothing to chance. In addition to Mayer, the studio has hired an impressive array of publicists to aid its campaign, including such veterans as David Horowitz, Melody Korenbrot, Johnny Friedkin, Ronni Chasen and Gail Brounstein. As Mayer puts it: "It's a lot like a company hiring three or four different ad agencies to come up with a campaign. It's good to have a lot of people with different ideas and strengths."

Early-bird rankings

Which brings us to our annual early-bird assessment of the top Oscar best picture contenders. It looks like a big year for studio movies, in part because of the increasing conservatism of the Academy -- "Lost in Translation" is my favorite film of the year, but its cool sensibility probably won't speak to aging Oscar voters -- and in part because of the now infamous Oscar screening controversy.

With so many critics and guild award groups deprived of screeners this year, big studio movies will have more of an advantage than in the past, since many voters may make their picks based on buzz and marketing hype, not actual film going.

Indie-type films will be especially hurt by the cancellation of the L.A. Film Critics Awards, a hasty, self-destructive move that will deprive smaller, more challenging films of a key endorsement.

Our predictions are far from infallible, although "Chicago," last year's 5-1 favorite, was the ultimate winner. Here's a look at this year's race:

Favorites:

"Mystic River" (6-1). Great performances. Great reviews. Great filmmaker. This is one film where what moved the critics -- the film's almost Shakespearean sense of a tragic hero haunted by familial passions and ancient conflicts -- will resonate with Academy members as well. If there were ever a sentimental Academy favorite, it would be director Clint Eastwood, who was already considered an eminence grise when his "Unforgiven" won best picture in 1992.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (8-1). When it comes to a sci-fi fantasy epic winning a best picture Oscar, we're in uncharted waters -- it just hasn't happened. And for good reason. Special effects films have little appeal with the actors branch, the Academy's largest voting block. Bottom line: It has to be a disaster not to be nominated; it has to be better than the first two to generate the momentum needed to win.

"Cold Mountain" (10-1). Harvey Weinstein must've had a heart attack when he saw co-star Nicole Kidman quoted in Newsweek saying she didn't think the film was a real Oscar movie. But with Academy favorites Kidman, Renee Zellweger and director Anthony Minghella on hand, backed by the Miramax Oscar marketing machine, this $100-million period romance based on an award-winning novel has the literary credentials and epic narrative to make it a serious contender, sight unseen.

Contenders:

"Finding Nemo" (14-1). Normally the best reviewed movie of the year is a slam-dunk Oscar contender. But now that the Academy has a separate best animated feature category, even beloved animated pictures (see "Shrek") are longshots, especially with a 1,300-member actors branch that has little incentive to vote for animated fare. But with "The Alamo" out of the running, expect a big campaign from Disney that could pay off if other potential contenders fall off the pace.

"The House of Sand and Fog" (15-1). Director Vadim Perelman may be an unknown, but so was Rob Marshall, whose feature debut, "Chicago," ran away with best picture last year. Is it a fluke or a trend? This film is dark and troubling, but it comes armed with two Oscar winners, Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, and its exploration of a popular Oscar theme -- the American Dream gone sour -- could propel this gripping drama into the Oscar's Final Five.

"Master and Commander" (16-1).This rousing tale of men at war, divided by duty and friendship, has plenty of classic Academy pedigree, from Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and director Peter Weir, a respected three-time nominee, to the film's craftsmanship and historical detail. The early reaction has been mixed, but its reception with critics and at the box office will play a key role in whether it emerges as an Oscar finalist.

"Seabiscuit" (18-1). The earliest contender out of the chute, this Gary Ross film took the early lead, but will need a second look from Oscar voters to make a serious stretch run. Many top critics were underwhelmed by the film's earnestness and triumph-of-the-underdog sentiment. But never count out an uplifting historical drama that captures the resilience and generosity of the spirit of America, themes that have always resonated with Academy members.

"The Last Samurai" (20-1). Yet another historical epic, this Ed Zwick-directed drama features Tom Cruise as a hero in search of heroism, a lost soul who finds himself in the fast-disappearing world of the Japanese samurai. The painstakingly crafted film has the elements of Oscardom -- dramatic sweep, personal redemption and respect for a faraway culture -- but early viewers had trouble making the kind of emotional connection that bumps films into best picture territory.

"The Missing" (22-1). The film's marketers may think "western" is a dirty word, but the stark beauty of this film's landscape provides much of the epic sweep for this timeless tale of a father and daughter's struggle for redemption and forgiveness. Not everyone loved the movie, but don't be surprised if this strikes a chord with Academy voters, especially with Oscar-winner Ron Howard at the helm, and Cate Blanchett at the heart of the story. Reaction to this has been mixed as well.

Longshots:

"Lost in Translation" (25-1). Buoyed by a tears-of-a-clown performance by Bill Murray, this striking Sofia Coppola drama will need lots of critics awards to sway older Oscar voters.

"In America" (27-1). A soulful coming-to-America saga from director Jim Sheridan that has the kind of emotional punch that could strike a sentimental chord with Academy members.

"Big Fish" (30-1). The jury is still out on this quirky father-son story which comes loaded with lots of Tim Burton visual ingenuity and a big two-hankie finish.

"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to pat rick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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