Early fall films stall in Hollywood's Oscar race

LOS ANGELES Thu Oct 18, 2007 5:01pm EDT

Director Gavin Hood (C) poses with cast members Jake Gyllenhaal (L) and Reese Witherspoon at the after-party for the premiere of ''Rendition'' in Beverly Hills in this October 10, 2007 file photo. With the U.S. debut of the film on October 19, 2007, Hollywood's movie studios will have released many early Oscar hopefuls to only limited success leaving award watchers hoping the best films are yet to come. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Director Gavin Hood (C) poses with cast members Jake Gyllenhaal (L) and Reese Witherspoon at the after-party for the premiere of ''Rendition'' in Beverly Hills in this October 10, 2007 file photo. With the U.S. debut of the film on October 19, 2007, Hollywood's movie studios will have released many early Oscar hopefuls to only limited success leaving award watchers hoping the best films are yet to come.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Oscar race appears to be off to a slow start this year as many early hopefuls have met only limited success at film festivals and in wide release, leaving award watchers hoping the best films are yet to come.

With Friday's U.S. debut of spy thriller "Rendition," Hollywood's studios will have released many of their early Oscar hopefuls to less than rousing acclaim.

Moreover, the relatively low box office tallies for war-themed films like "In the Valley of Elah" ($6 million to date), have caused some film bloggers to wonder if fans -- and by extension Oscar voters -- prefer lighter fare in 2007 like summer hit "Hairspray" or western "3:10 to Yuma."

If that turns out to be true, then fall's adult-oriented dramas like Russian mob movie "Eastern Promises," George Clooney legal thriller "Michael Clayton," Brad Pitt's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" are in big Oscar trouble.

"The movies simply were not good enough, but you know I'm still confident. We only need five" to be nominated for the film industry's top award, said veteran critic and Hollywood blogger Emanuel Levy of emanuellevy.com.

The 2007 Oscars will be given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on February 24 next year after months of campaigning by studios to win the prestigious honor.

Last year at this time, seven of the eight films that won Oscars in best film, acting or other key categories had already debuted, according to Tom O'Neil of award-watching site TheEnvelope.com. The most notable was director Martin Scorsese's best picture award winner, "The Departed."

Success and other factors -- chiefly the Academy moving its awards show up to February from March -- led the studios to begin debuting Oscar caliber films earlier and using festivals in Toronto, Venice and Telluride, Colorado to launch films, hopefully win good reviews and build industry buzz.

A HOLLYWOOD BACKFIRE?

This year, the strategy may have done more harm than good for fall movies because too many deep-thinking dramas -- the kind which tend to win Oscars -- were in theaters too early.

"The strategy has sort of backfired in terms of positioning these movies for awards. ... The studios want to go out earlier and earlier and the films are cannibalizing each other," said Pete Hammond, critic for Maxim magazine.

Two festival movies still taking top positions on award watchers' lists are British drama "Atonement," which revolves around false claims of child abuse, and Joel and Ethan Coen's crime thriller, "No Country for Old Men."

Unlike the others, those movies have yet to face their true tests -- theater audiences and Oscar voters. "No Country" debuts in late November and "Atonement" in early December.

The disappointments of early fall do have a flip side for Oscar watchers, however. There is more excitement to come.

"There really is no front-runner and that may make the year seem flat, but others might see it as exciting," said Kristopher Tapley, editor of InContention.com

High on watch lists are drama "The Kite Runner," crime thriller "American Gangster" starring Denzel Washington, "There Will be Blood" about early oil prospecting, and musical "Sweeney Todd," which features Johnny Depp in a singing role.

If it is true that audiences are in no mood for war films or dark dramas, then "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as cancer patients, and "Charlie Wilson's War," with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, could be in trouble.

That leaves room for a comedy like "Juno," from "Thank You For Smoking" director Jason Reitman, to break through.

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