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Christmas Is Oscar Hell Week

Monday, December 25----While most industries take a rare respite during Christmas week, for the film industry it is a frenzied period that is not the least bit sleepy or relaxed. For film distributors, the Christmas-New Year's holiday period has become one of the most essential make-or-break weeks of the year, with Americans (and presumably others) adding movie-going as part of their Holiday celebrations. In other words, after the spate of last minute Christmas shopping, going out to the movies becomes a welcome respite, which is ka-jing, ka-jing for theater owners and distributors scrambling to get their films noticed in an end-of-the-year mash up that resembles a multi-car crash on the Ventura Freeway.

Christmas Day, once reserved for churchgoing, reflection and family gatherings, has become a prime date for opening films, with such Oscar hopefuls as DREAMGIRLS, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, CHILDREN OF MEN, VENUS, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and NOTES ON A SCANDAL opening right on Christmas Day….or a few days before or after. Aside from a tantalizing array of viewing options for hungry film fans, one can only imagine distributors’ offices running at full speed, with grumpy and hungover employees going through the motions, while most of the world takes a breather from everyday activities.

Christmas Week is also a busy one for members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. It is their “catch up” week (or as described in a recent New York Times article on the subject: “Oscar hell week”). Two years ago when the Academy shortened the Oscar season by one month by moving the awards ceremony from March to February, the entire process has shrunk, putting more pressure on film studios, press agents and Oscar voters, which invariably invades the end-of-the-year festivities of Christmas and New Year’s.

The Academy has announced that its awards ballots will be sent out to voting members on December 26, one day after Christmas, with a return deadline of January 13. That gives the 5800 eligible voting members just two short weeks to catch up on any films that they may have missed earlier in the year, including the dozens of nominee-worthy films that have opened in the past few weeks alone. The 79th Academy Awards will be present on February 25th at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.

This frenzied schedule has changed the rules of what was once Hollywood’s deadest period into a frenzy of promotion, special screenings and glitzy advertising and direct marketing campaigns that newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times love (naturally) and postmen hate (all those dvd screeners and oversized electronic press kits and glossy brochures to deliver).

In the New York Times article, Murray Weissman, a veteran Oscar publicist who has masterminded the Oscar campaigns of such recent films as CHICAGO and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, was quoted as saying….”we are holding special screenings for Academy members in Hawaii, in Aspen and even in Malibu……wherever the industry goes on vacation, we will probably follow them there.”

For those remaining in Los Angeles for the holidays (where the vast majority of Academy members reside), the Academy’s own theater runs practically non-stop from early morning till late at night, screening nearly all the eligible films from the past year. Considering the hundreds that have been released by the major studios, added to the independent titles and foreign-language films that are also in consideration, this makes for a marathon of film viewing…..and time spent away from family, friends and the requisite round of golf. With some ambitious Academy members seeing as many as five or six films on any given day, there is always a concern that such multiple viewings are not especially fair to the films, particularly the smaller, more nuanced ones.

That explains why the avalanche of announcements from various film critics associations in the past month have such an impact. Not only are they prominently featured in the film’s advertising campaigns in local newspapers, but they clearly demarcate the field, limiting the chances of a film not recognized by these bodies to break through. Whether film sophisticates in New York or Los Angeles really care what a cabal of film critics in Dallas or Las Vegas really think is open to suggestion, but when a film or a performance gets heralded by these groups in the press, it does reinforce the nominee chances for the coveted Oscar award.

For those who do not want to attend special screenings at a beach or ski resort, or come down from the Hollywood hills to participate at the Academy theater screenings (despite their often lavish food buffet spreads), or simply want to sample the films in the comfort of their multimedia home theaters, while wearing their pajamas, the sending out of DVD screeners is another gift from Santa Claus. While the use of screeners is still somewhat controversial (the Directors Guild of America just announced that it has banned the practice for its own DGA Awards considerations), they have become a fact of life for the awards season. The key is how to get these crucial voters to notice the smaller films that are included in the overload of screener, electronic press kit and glossy brochures that clog the mailboxes of Academy members.

Although the Oscar campaign season officially starts in early September with the high profile premieres of serious contenders at the Toronto International Film Festival (BORAT yes, ALL THE KING'S MEN no), the big push comes in December, with the announcement of the major critics prizes, Golden Globe nominations and relentless Top Ten lists in newspapers, magazines, television and radio.

But the panic becomes acute on the day after Christmas, thanks in part to industry legend that says half of the nominating votes are cast within a week of the annual academy mailing (in other words, in the next 10 days). So, nearly 50% of the nomination ballots will be in the mail by January 5, making Christmas Week and the first week of the New Year ground zero for relentless Oscar campaign pushes. In other words, no rest for the weary…..

Sandy Mandelberger
Awards Watch Editor

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