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And the nominees will be ... who knows?

With the holiday movie season officially upon us, and ballots for Oscar nominations due next month, why does it not yet feel like the race has begun?
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While the country continued to find ways to cut back in tough times, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided it was time to supersize. In October, it announced a doubling of the number of nominees in the best picture category, bringing the grand total to 10.

So which films are the contenders? The obvious potentials in theaters now seem to be “Precious,” “Hurt Locker,” and “An Education.” Some yet-to-be-released films, like “Invictus,” “Up in the Air” and “The Lovely Bones” have buzz but nothing like the slow, steady drip of anticipation that was last year’s walk up to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

The idea behind the 10 slots was to allow the category to cut through a larger swath of diverse films — big budget fan favorites like “Up,” or even “Star Trek” could be included alongside indie films that are more critical than commercial successes. With the right balance, it stands to reason the Oscar red carpet could be populated with more of the A-list, which translates to ratings; everybody wins. So with that in mind, the holiday movie season officially upon us, and ballots for nominations due next month, why does it not yet feel like the race has begun?

Two factors loom large in the way this year’s best picture buzz has flatlined upon arrival: the calendar, and, wait for it… the economy. With the former, it just happens to be the case that the big contenders are being released closer to the Academy deadline. And the reason we aren’t hearing about them yet? That’s where the economy comes into play, something Sony Pictures Classics co-president and co-founder Michael Barker has noticed.

“Because of the economic moment, people (studios) are trying to streamline. They’re being very careful about how they spend their money,” Barker said. “Advertising dollars are being spent differently — they’re being spent closer to the opening (of a film) rather than further ahead.”

Later not always better, and definitely not cheapDavid Glasser, president of international distribution for The Weinstein Company, isn’t totally onboard with that theory because economically, waiting doesn’t come cheap.

“We’ve consistently seen years where it feels like at Christmas time a lot seems to be coming out — years like ‘Chicago,’ and ‘Gangs of New York,’ but pushing pictures to Christmas is more expensive,” said Glasser. “Ad time is more expensive, from that standpoint, if anything you want it released early.

There’s also a change in the way films are being advertised since the swine flu-like spread of “Benjamin Button” promotional ads just last year.

“Less money is being spent on that kind of traditional advertising you saw with ‘Benjamin Button,’ which is more in line with ‘Avatar’ right now, and more is being spent on Internet advertising,” said Barker.

All good points, but this could be a case of can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees. There is one big factor that won't make its way into any marketing materials — this year, there is no “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“This year is different in that last year, as soon as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ showed for the first time at Telluride and Toronto film festivals, there was a general feeling that there, there was a best picture,” Barker said.

“The environment of this year's films is there isn't that front runner. Anything is possible, and there’s still speculation about many movies that haven’t been seen.”

What the field of 10 will look like
The Academy has brought summer blockbusters and fan favorites to the dance before. “Airport” was nominated for best picture in 1971 (it was also nominated in eight other categories and Helen Hayes won best actress in a supporting role) as was “Jaws” in 1976 (it won three statues in other categories). But the academy has tended to favor smaller films with narrower audiences.

“In the past decade or so they (the Academy) have been relentless snobs, snubbing big pictures like last year's ‘Dark Night’,” said Tom O’Neil, editor for the Los Angeles Times’ awards season blog, “We're holding our breath to find out what the 10 will look like — I think people are going to be ticked.”

“Theoretically ‘The Hangover’ could be nominated, so could ‘Star Trek.’ They’re box office hits and are all proven — critics and audiences loved them, and they should be nominated,” O’Neil argued.

That’s not to say there won’t be a mix among the nominees, according to Barker. “Because the world has so many challenges at this given moment, you’re probably going to see a very eclectic list of films. People are going to the movies for distractions, but also for answers, whether they're personal or political. It actually causes the public to look for a lot in movies,” he said.

Is it good for Oscar?
“Upping it to 10 movies is blatant and desperate — it's all about box office. They figure if five movies get that advantage, why not 10 movies,” said one actor who’s been in film and television for more than two decades. “The fact is, having 10 films completely dilutes the idea of there being one best picture. It’s an invidious comparison of things.”

Comparing “The Hangover” to “Hurt Locker” might reek of apples and oranges, but if they’re nominated, they’ll benefit similarly by having “Best Picture Nominee” on their DVD packaging. “I find a nomination in any of the major categories can add revenue as well as a posterity (to any film),” said Barker.

More than a source of revenue, a larger nominee pool could have a positive impact on the overall movie going experience.

“A movie you’ve got to drive to see, that’s something you discover with a broad field,” Glasser said. “We’re so used to punching in our zip code and having what you want come up nearby, but sometimes you’ve got to drive to the Archlight in Sherman Oaks to find it. It’s nice for people to go find movies that they wouldn’t if not for their nomination.”

And then there’s an idea that O’Neil advances, that when the people who make movies are happy, everyone’s happy. “These are people who have looks, money, power, Pilates. What they really want more, is a fake gold statuette.”

And really, who doesn’t?