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The Nominees for Best Picture Are...

Ron Grover Get out your gown. Put on your tux. We're fast approaching Oscar season. On Feb. 13, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will wake up America with news of the pictures, actors, actresses, and a cast of seems-like-a-thousand other categories nominated for this year's Academy Awards. You know the drill: Academy President Bob Rehme and actress Kathy Bates make the bleary-eyed announcement at dawn Los Angeles time, and all hell breaks loose. The nominated films will immediately get huge bumps at the box office, some will be rushed back into theaters, and all the nominated thespians will be on the phone with their agents -- agreeing that what ever they got paid for their most recent flick is about $5 million too low.

That's the game Hollywood studios have been playing ever since a bunch of film execs gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood in 1927 to give their first award to a silent flick called Wings. That year, Janet Gaynor won a best actress award for one of the three films she made that year.

DIRTY LITTLE SECRET. So why does the Academy announce the nominations in February and give the awards in March? Because that's the deadest part of the year, and this is all about getting a little extra publicity for movies at a time when folks have always been hunkered down in the warmth of their houses.

And guess what? It works. Every year, some film or another gets a $20 million boost at the box office because a nomination seems to almost automatically create lines for some picture that has been running out of gas. Take Shakespeare in Love, which doubled the $36.2 million it had at the box in the six weeks between being nominated and getting the best picture nod in 1998.

The dirty little secret in Hollywood, however, is that the moguls of Tinseltown always seem to know which films will get nominated. This year -- and remember, you heard it here first -- the word is already out. One Academy member told me over lunch recently that the five nominees for best picture will be: Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Gladiator, Almost Famous and probably Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Well, maybe Billy Elliot, my source allows, but that film seems to be slipping a bit.

Slipping? Who the heck even knew it was up there in the first place? I don't remember seeing any tracking polls for which film was ahead with Academy voters, and who was playing the spoiler role of a John McCain. Fact is, so many darn awards shows are out there now that everybody has time to see which way the wind is blowing. After all, no one wants to be like those poor folks in Florida who couldn't punch out a chad. When Almost Famous writer Cameron Crowe walked away with a recent Writers Guild award, just after winning the Golden Globe, the movie about an teenage magazine writer out on the road with a rock band became a hot commodity. Chocolat has picked up a little steam since Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench both were nominated for Golden Globes.

SCHMOOZEFEST. My lunch companion explained to me that, for studios, it's all about getting your forces mobilized and your stars out there shaking hands. Just like a political campaign. Julia Roberts, my friend says, has been hitting every lunchtime talk show humanly possible. She's a certainty, I'm told, to add another best actress nomination to the one she got for Pretty Woman in 1991 and her 1990 best supporting actress nomination for Steel Magnolias.

Universal, which released Erin, is slightly nervous, I'm also told. That's because Roberts, who has recently allied herself with former Disney studio chief Joe Roth's new Revolution Studio, isn't working as hard to promote the film as Universal would like. That, plus the fact that director Steven Soderbergh has both Erin and Traffic in the running for nominations this year and has pledged that he won't take sides.

It's not exactly a big secret that Hollywood studios coordinate their campaigns, hiring consultants and plastering industry trades Variety and The Hollywood Reporter with big splashy ads. Studios were told to rein it in a few years back when Sony gave out very pricey wooden boxes with cassettes of its movies inside. But doling out the actors for interviews is still fair game. Remember two years back when Roberto Benigni seemed to be at every party in Hollywood making like a clown? All that schmoozing won him an Oscar and a nomination for his film Life is Beautiful. Actors do work.

SNUBBED. This year, Dreamworks Studios has Gladiator star Russell Crowe all gussied up and on the circuit -- no small feat for a guy who openly trashed the entire Oscar process some years back (and got his reward when his truly memorable performance in L.A. Confidential went unnoticed by Academy voters). Last year, Dreamworks did the same with Kevin Spacey, who is a great actor but doesn't like the press. The studio rolled him out, putting him on Letterman, Leno, and every cable talk show in America. The reward: an Oscar for both him and his film American Beauty.

So take a look who's on magazine covers and on talk shows giving those lengthy interviews between now and Feb. 13. You're gonna find a lot of Roberts, Crowe, and Michael Douglas, the star of Traffic. And it'll be hard to miss Michelle Yeoh, the Asian beauty and star of Crouching Tiger. I think she has been on Access Hollywood every day the past week. Of course, I can't seem to recall anyone from Billy Elliot making the rounds. Wow! It must be falling in all those secret polls. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online

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