Filmfest Adjusts Focus |

Filmfest Adjusts Focus

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Academy Awards aren’t exactly in an upheaval. This year’s categories will look familiar. On television, the awards presentation will feature big stars wearing big jewels and eye-catching gowns and will run overtime. About the most notable change from year’s past is that the big prize, for best picture, will go for the first time to a fantasy film, “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” the third and final installment of director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels.

But there have been less visible changes in Oscarland, which could have impacts on when films are released and who takes home the statuettes. And closer to home, those changes may affect Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings program, which begins Sunday, Dec. 21.

The most obvious change to the Academy Awards is that the date of the presentation has been pushed up a month, from late March to late February. This year’s ceremony, hosted by Billy Crystal, is set for Feb. 29.

It may not seem such a significant thing. But in the complex, competitive arena that the Academy Awards have become, a month’s difference has meant a good amount of juggling of release dates. With a month’s less time to have their films seen and to boot up their marketing campaigns, distributors have moved up the release dates of a good number of the films they consider Oscar-worthy.

“Mystic River,” a strong contender for several awards, including best picture, best director and best actor, was in theaters in October. Two more serious Oscar contenders, “Lost in Translation” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” were released in early fall, rather than the usual prestige-film season of late fall or early winter. While a good number of films are following the pattern of many award contenders ” being released in New York and Los Angeles in late December to qualify for the Academy Awards, and then being released more widely later in the winter to take advantage of Oscar buzz ” that number has shrunk this year.

“This is a transitional year for the industry, because moving things up is significant,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen pattern for many years of how to launch a campaign. You wanted a fall release, between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. But for some of the independent distributors, they had to put their stuff out earlier so they didn’t compete with the bigger studios.”

As a result, this year’s Academy Screenings program is lighter ” 19 films, as compared to last year’s slate of 25. Several films that might have been included in this year’s series have already been widely distributed, making them a poor fit for the Academy Screenings.

Still, the Academy Screenings will offer an advance look at several handfuls of the year’s top films before they are widely released. (Only one other film program, in Hawaii, offers a similar treat for moviegoers.) Many of the films ” including Robert Altman’s “The Company”; the Robert S. McNamara documentary “Fog of War”; the French film “Monsieur Ibrahim”; and “Cold Mountain,” starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law ” will be screened only in New York and Los Angeles and other select markets before they get their general release after the turn of the year.

The other big issue affecting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the rules affecting screeners. For years, distributors have been in the habit of sending screeners ” video or DVD copies of their films ” to Academy members, to increase the chances that the voters will actually see the films they are or are not voting for.

In late September, the Motion Picture Association of America decreed that its members may not send screeners at all. The decision, they said, was a response to the increasing threat of bootlegging, an especially worrisome possibility when easily pirated DVDs are involved.

Small distributors objected. With fewer marketing dollars to entice people to see their films in theaters, small distributors had relied on screeners as a way of ensuring that their films received attention in the late-year crowd rush of films. The MPAA relented some: Screeners were permitted to be sent, but only on video, and only to members of the Academy and related guilds. Further, Academy members had to pledge not to let the films out of their control. And videos would be encoded so that a pirated copy could be traced to the person to whom it had been sent.

A group of small distributors sued anyway. Just two weeks ago, on Dec. 5, a federal judge for the District of New York ruled against the MPAA. Determining that the ban violated federal antitrust laws because smaller distributors relied on screeners to compete, the court allowed the distribution of screeners. (Jack Valenti, president and chief executive of the MPAA, has said that the organization will appeal.) Due to the timing of the ruling, distributors who want to send screeners to Academy members are well behind in their efforts.

Thielen said she is uncertain if the screener situation will have any effect on the Academy Screenings, entering its 13th season. But she said she hoped that Academy voters, uncertain whether films will be available on video or DVD, have made plans to see the films in their Academy Screenings appearances. Even if the shortage of screeners doesn’t have much effect, Thielen still expects to see a good-sized number of Academy voters at the Academy Screenings, which are open to the public, but exist on the theory that a lot of Academy members are in Aspen during the holiday season.

“Every year our attendance by Academy members grows,” said Thielen. “I know people who, even if they could see a film in New York or L.A., will want to see it here. It’s easier and it’s something they enjoy doing over the holidays. It has an energy that complements the rest of the holiday energy in town.”

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