Making Oscar part of the dream

IT'S been hard to find anyone in the last few weeks who hasn't been talking about "Dreamgirls," which is sitting pretty in the pole position of this year's Oscar derby. But if there's one person who hasn't been taking the movie's academy appeal for granted, it's DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, who's spent the last year burnishing the film's credentials, not simply as an Oscar film, but as a movie event.

"I don't get up in the morning without remembering -- this is an all-black cast in a musical, knowing an all-black cast has never won an Oscar," she said the other day. "The whole idea, from day one, has to be to event-ize this movie."

Last December, even before filming had started, Press assembled a teaser trailer that ran in front of films such as "The Producers," the implicit message being, "If you like this film, you'll really want to see this one." After the musicals "The Producers" and "Rent" bombed late last year, Press realized she needed to show off her movie's strengths. In February, she invited a crowd of journalists to the set in Los Angeles to meet director Bill Condon and various cast members.

"I didn't want to spend the whole year with the first sentence of every story being, 'Will "Dreamgirls" break the curse of "Rent" or "The Producers?" ' And the best way to take that off the table was to show off the goods," she explains.

She followed that up by taking 25 minutes of footage to Cannes, where the red-carpet arrival of Beyonce, Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Hudson got the media play of a bona-fide film premiere. "It turned into a gigantic event," she says. "Let me tell you, when Beyonce shows up, grown men fall to their knees. When I went out to dinner afterwards, I was already getting e-mails of stories posted on the Internet."

To introduce the film to younger audiences, DreamWorks has quietly spent close to $250,000 funding high school productions of the original play, paying for estate licensing fees. The press has also been wooed with care. Mindful of how "Munich" was walloped by the media last year after Steven Spielberg gave an exclusive peek to Time, Press showed "Dreamgirls" to everybody at the same time, staging screenings in 50 markets on Nov. 15. "I know you guys," she told me. "If you'd heard someone had seen it first, you'd be [upset]." Oprah got the first big cast interviews, giving the film her blessing on a Nov. 20 show. The stars are also on the January cover of Vanity Fair, while the notoriously press-shy Eddie Murphy even did a news conference with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

"You can say things have been orchestrated," Press says. "But your campaign has to be organic too. When a movie is good, people want to talk about it, and when people are talking up your movie, that's something money can't buy."

How good are the odds that "Dreamgirls" will end up with an Oscar best picture victory? What follows is my annual early betting line assessing the chances of leading films.

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Favorites

"Dreamgirls." 4-1: A faithful adaptation of the 1981 stage play not-so-loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, this lavish Condon-directed all-black musical is handsome as entertainment can be, loaded with infectious music and accomplished performances, especially from supporting actress favorite Hudson, who earns the right to any comparisons with the role's originator, Jennifer Holliday. The film's craft will earn it a boatload of nominations. Its chances of a best picture victory depend on whether the academy, which has a soft spot for showbiz stories, will embrace a crowd-pleaser that isn't daring or original. In other words: Does the soul outweigh the schmaltz?

"The Queen." 6-1: Tony Blair's wife acidly remarks during the film, "In the end, all Labour prime ministers go gaga for the queen," a sentiment that could be said of academy voters who've embraced this Stephen Frears-directed film about Elizabeth II's battle to save the monarchy after the death of Princess Diana. Buoyed with great reviews and a classic best actress performance by Helen Mirren, the film has been a part of the best picture conversation from its first day in release. It will benefit from being the one most topical of the favorites with its knowing portrayal of backstage politics and tabloid-driven pop culture.

"The Departed." 9-1: No filmmaker has been a bigger victim of the academy's conservatism than Martin Scorsese, a five-time loser in the best director category (he wasn't even nominated for "Taxi Driver"). But at 64, the director has a serious best picture contender with this impressive genre vehicle that Variety's Todd McCarthy aptly dubbed a "bloody steak of a movie." Even though it's a remake of a popular Hong Kong thriller and viewed as a less-than-personal project, the film has showy performances and vintage Scorsese set pieces. Although its ending, which features a gory series of killings, has been too much for some squeamish academy types, they may still prefer to honor the filmmaker, not the film.

"Little Miss Sunshine." 10-1: You could've knocked me over with a feather three months ago if you'd told me this summertime delight about a crazy family road trip would be an Oscar favorite, but this little gem has become an academy pet, viewed not simply as a comedy (a genre sadly neglected at Oscar time) but a smart, heartfelt story about familial bonds. The film has no real pedigree -- most academy members have never even heard of its filmmaking team. But if the key to a best picture nomination is getting people to watch your film, "Sunshine" has a big lead over its more ballyhooed rivals.

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Contenders

"Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima." 12-1: It's hard to separate these two Clint Eastwood films, which offer very different takes on the bloody 1945 battle for Iwo Jima; the latter being a portrait of the conflict from the Japanese point of view, the former a study of America's exploitation of its war heroes. Eastwood is beloved by both the academy and critics, but "Flag's" poor box-office reception will hurt it with some voters, and it may prove difficult to get academy members to see a second film on the same subject, especially one in Japanese with an all-Japanese cast.

"The Good Shepherd." 14-1: With its biggest branch by far being actors, the academy has a real weakness for serious films made by respected actors, so expect this Robert De Niro-directed drama about CIA skulduggery to be a serious contender, especially thanks to a strong Matt Damon performance as a CIA operative whose career path most closely resembles that of a Michael Corleone-style mafia chief.

"Babel." 15-1: Even its detractors would admit that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest offering is a wildly ambitious film, with interwoven story lines set in the post 9/11 global wilderness. But the film remains a tough sell, hurt by a division among critics, some of whom admired it, others dismissing it as pretentious and predictable.

"United 93" and "World Trade Center." 16-1: Paul Greengrass' "United 93" was more admired by critics, but without recognizable acting talent, it will probably get the same reception the academy's actor's branch gives to documentaries and animated films. "WTC" had a bigger commercial reception, but despite having Oliver Stone at the helm, the film is viewed as being stronger on sentiment than on compelling drama.

"Volver." 18-1: If there were ever an endangered species in the best picture race, it's the foreign film, which, like animation, has been ghettoized in a separate but not equal category. Sony Pictures Classics has made a big push for this Pedro Almodovar film, but it doesn't look to have the depth of support needed.

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Long shots

"Children of Men." 20-1: This dark futuristic thriller from Alfonso Cuaron should get rave reviews for its bravura filmmaking but may have trouble getting enough academy attention.

"The Pursuit of Happyness." 22-1: This will get lots of support from the actors branch thanks to a strong performance from Will Smith, but it feels more like an audience picture than an academy contender.

"Little Children." 25-1: If only there were an "In the Bedroom" slot for chilling suburban angst, this Todd Field film would sneak in. But despite good reviews, the film seems to have little traction with academy voters.

"Blood Diamond." 30-1: The academy will probably like this drama set in South Africa more than the critics, but not enough to earn it a best picture slot.

"Bobby." 40-1: Harvey Weinstein has pulled out all the stops for this historical drama, but when the best you can do for your first quote ads are blurbs from Larry King, Liz Smith and Rex Reed, your best picture chances are slim and none.

"Apocalypto." 60-1: Let's just say that it will take the academy a lot longer to forgive Mel Gibson than it did for him to forgive Michael Richards.

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"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail questions or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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