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A Less Suspenseful Oscar Night

By Ron Grover This much is clear from the Academy Award nominations announced on Jan. 27: Few surprise endings are in store when Hollywood's top prizes are handed out on Feb. 29. With 11 nominations, including those for Best Picture and Best Director, New Line Cinema's third installment in The Lord of the Rings series, The Return of the King, is better than an odds-on favorite to win an armful of top prizes.

As for Best Actor, pencil in as heavy favorite Sean Penn, star of Mystic River, who won a Golden Globe on Jan. 25. And you can count on fellow Golden Globe winners Charlize Theron, who won for her starring role in Monster, and Renee Zellweger, who took home the best supporting actress award for her role in Cold Mountain, to grab Oscars as well.

This year, the surprises were more in who didn't get nominated. Miramax didn't get a Best Picture nomination for the first time in 12 years (indeed, in the prior 11, it landed 13 such nominations.) Russell Crowe was shunted aside even as the film he starred in, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, got nods for Best Picture and for its director, Peter Weir. The Last Samurai star Tom Cruise was stood up, despite a hefty marketing campaign, as was perennial nominee Jack Nicholson for his starring role in Something's Gotta Give.

HARVEY-WEARY? So what gives? Some folks in Hollywood figure that the shut-outs could be due to the whole Oscar process having been moved up a month. Ballots were mailed out Dec. 29 to accommodate the Feb. 29 ceremony. An airing during February sweeps will no doubt help ABC (DIS), which is once again broadcasting Hollywood's big night. But the lost month didn't give studios a lot of time to gear up campaigns for films that were released late in 2003, such as Cold Mountain and The Last Samurai, say studio execs. That worked in favor of Seabiscuit, released in summer, and Master and Commander, launched in November amid a splashy marketing campaign that benefited mightily from a cover story in Time.

Hollywood veterans also seem to have grown weary of watching Miramax' hypercompetitive Harvey Weinstein elbow his way into the Best Picture action with publicity blitzes. After winning nominations for what some insiders consider less-than-worthy flicks like Chocolat (and an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love), these folks say the voters couldn't stomach honoring another Miramax-made film that was less than great. "Cold Mountain was a lousy film that all the marketing in the world couldn't overcome," says one voter.

Folks at Miramax point out, however, say they did just fine, thank you, with 15 overall nominations -- more than any other studio. Its Canadian-made The Barbarian Invasions got a nomination for Best Foreign Picture, and Cold Mountain did come away with seven nominations (two were for songs, and one each for Rene Zellwegger and Jude Law).

ROY'S REVENGE? Still, Miramax spent $80 million to make the Civil War film, and the buzz is that Harvey & Co. were counting on a Best Picture nomination to fuel a marketing push that could make the movie profitable. That's what happened last year when it pulled out a bushel of nominations for Gangs of New York, a bloated flick that went into the black thanks in large part to its Oscar attention.

While Miramax may have stumbled in its chase for the Best Picture honors, the gates have opened up for smaller films, reversing a recent trend to nominate major stars and big-budget flicks. Witness 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes having a shot as Best Actress for her role in the New Zealand art-house film Whale Rider. And the move away from big stars and even bigger movies no doubt helped Focus Film's low-budget Lost in Translation get several nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Sofia Coppola) and Best Actor (Bill Murray).

I'm not going to hold my breath for Lost in Translation to be a big winner on Oscar night. In fact, only one category will really grab my attention. I'm waiting to see if Disney's Destino wins for Best Animated Short Film. Why? If it does, it's entirely likely the acceptor will be Roy Disney, who made it his life's mission to get the collaboration between his Uncle Walt and artist Salvador Dali on the screen.

Roy Disney recently quit the Disney corporate board, blasting Chairman Michael Eisner for letting top creative folks leave the company. Waiting for his acceptance speech may be the only suspense left this year. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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