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Gangs of Tinseltown

With studios releasing their holiday movies one after another, the season is shaping up as the most competitive -- for Oscar contenders as well as box office -- in years.

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People in the industry like to complain that the Oscar race has changed, that an ambitious studio chief like Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Katzenberg can just buy an award with a fat wallet and a nasty whisper campaign. But the real sea change in Oscar marketing took place back in 1991, when producer-star Warren Beatty's labor of love Bugsy went up against the big-budget Hook, both released by TriStar. Beatty needed to get his money out of the back-end grosses, so when Bugsy opened to great reviews but soft box office, he insisted that TriStar spend heavily -- an unprecedented $25 million -- promoting the movie for the Oscars. Lo and behold, the film grabbed ten nominations, won two, and a new era in big-spending Oscar campaigns was born.

Oscar contenders used to be grand-scale epics put out by equally grand-scale studios: Gandhi (Columbia), Reds (Paramount), The Last Emperor (Columbia), Lawrence of Arabia (Columbia), Braveheart (Paramount). And with the exception of a few Zeitgeist-nailers like Annie Hall and American Beauty, most Oscar movies are full of eye-zapping visuals, exotic locations, lavish sets, costumed extras, and heart-stopping action.

What has really changed is that although the studio chiefs used to take pride in winning statuettes for their most lavish productions, no big company will make a period extravaganza like Bugsy anymore. Today, the only ones with the chops and the cash to produce multiple Oscar winners are DreamWorks, New Line, and Miramax. The other studios usually manage to come up with a fluke contender or two -- mainly because powerful players push forward risky projects like Paramount's Forrest Gump, Universal/Imagine's A Beautiful Mind, or Michael Mann's Ali (Sony).

Though the 2003 Oscar race will continue that trend, it's shaping up as the most competitive in years: At least a dozen movies are real contenders for the five Best Picture slots. The winners usually fit snugly into one of six beloved Academy genres.

Here's how the race is shaking out...


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