Oscar beckons: The musical Dreamgirls is the odds-on favorite to take home best picture honors. Clint Eastwood is again in the driver's seat as a best director nominee for Flags of Our Fathers. And everyone is talking about how Jackie Earle Haley scored a comeback with his supporting nomination for All the King's Men.
Uh, wait a moment. That was the way the 79th Annual Academy Awards was expected to unfold.
But the reality is something different: Dreamgirls will arrive at Sunday's Oscar ceremony at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland as the most nominated movie of the evening. But though it boasts eight noms, it failed in its quest for the brass ring of a best picture nomination. Eastwood will be on hand as well, but he is nominated for Letters From Iwo Jima, his Japanese account of the battle in the South Pacific that suddenly surfaced and picked up steam when his Flags was dropped to half mast. And Haley will be represented not for his work in "Men" -- that film, which many had decreed an Oscar front-runner sight unseen early on, quickly fell by the wayside -- but for his performance as a sex offender trying to reclaim his life in Little Children.
One thing is certain about this year's Oscar race, which looks as if it will continue to generate suspense right down to the moment when the final envelope is opened: It just didn't play out according to the script.
Of course, the original script was written not by the 5,830 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but by the legions of Oscar prognosticators, campaign consultants and self-styled Hollywood insiders, who have turned predicting the Academy's every move into a nearly year-round obsession.
Oscar, because of its ability to focus the public's attention on the movies, is the engine that drives an ever-enlarging entertainment media.
The Academy, even as it hails Oscar as a celebration of "excellence in cinema," is the most direct beneficiary. It derives three-quarters of its annual income from the licensing fees it charges ABC and outlets around the world to air the starry broadcast. ABC, in turn, will charge an average of $1.7 million per 30-second commercial.
Hollywood itself used to benefit from the added boxoffice boost that came from the nominations and eventual Oscar wins. But now that theatrical windows are shrinking, it is no longer the case. The nominations do still trigger a boxoffice uptick, but of this year's five best picture nominees, only Iwo Jima, which has grossed less than $12 million to date and played in only 781 theaters at its widest point, stands to benefit at the boxoffice should it be named best picture.
Three of the other best pictures nominees have already migrated to home video. Little Miss Sunshine, which debuted in theaters way back in late July, was released on DVD, on Dec. 19. The Departed hit the shelves at Wal-Mart and Best Buy on Feb. 13, and Babel went on sale Tuesday. And The Queen, which has grossed more than $50 million in domestic boxoffice since it bowed in late September, can be expected to follow suit soon.
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