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The latest on the Oscar Best Picture race

EW explains how the competition has winnowed down to just two films

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Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, ...
Cider: Stephen Vaughan; Beauty: Lorey Sebastian

It’s almost super Tuesday, and we’re not talking about the presidential primaries. The Academy Awards voting deadline is Tuesday, March 21, and already Oscar pundits have effectively whittled this year’s Best Picture battle down to just two candidates.

”’American Beauty’ and ‘Cider House Rules’ are pretty neck and neck,” says USA Films exec VP Steven Flynn, whose ”Being John Malkovich” failed to get a Picture nod. Indeed, the latest odds from noted Las Vegas prognosticator Lenny Del Genio have the two films listed at even money. Even the clue-starved syndicated gossip Cindy Adams is calling it ”a two-picture race.”

So what razed that level playing field we were hearing so much about? Ticket sales, for one thing. Since the nominations were announced Feb. 15, ”Beauty” and ”Cider” have seen sizable bumps in their box office receipts (both boast robust $3,000-plus per-screen averages), which only helps to build buzz. ”The Insider,” on the other hand, has been as financially DOA after its seven nominations as it was before them (its latest weekend per-screen was $801).

As for the other two nominees, ”The Sixth Sense,” which has made $284 million since its release last summer, may be deemed TOO commercial to take the top prize. And ”The Green Mile,” the only contender that didn’t score a Best Director nod, is widely seen as an also-ran that barely snagged its nomination in the first place.

All of which leaves two wildly disparate finalists and a bizarre sense of déjà vu. Last year, Miramax’s ”Shakespeare in Love” came from behind to win Best Picture over DreamWorks’ ”Saving Private Ryan”; now, the same studios are vying for the top prize. Miramax is aiming for another upset, this time with its longest shot yet: Unlike ”Beauty,” which has vacuumed up awards, ”Cider House” was virtually shut out of the Directors Guild nominations and top prizes from key critics.

To counter its relative obscurity, Miramax has shelled out big bucks for print and broadcast ads that sell ”Cider House” as a grassroots sleeper. Says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press: ”They’re being very smart about the images they put out there. You don’t see Michael Caine on ether.” (Of course, ”Beauty”’s ads don’t feature Kevin Spacey pleasuring himself in the shower.)

While Miramax seemed to push hardest during the nominating process, DreamWorks — trying to avoid a repeat of last year — is fighting back. ”The ‘American Beauty’ campaign is very aggressive,” says Oscar strategist Gail Block, who’s spearheading the ”Malkovich” campaign. ”DreamWorks is buying the ads they need to buy.” To be exact, in the last two weeks, it has bought 38 percent more Variety pages touting ”Beauty” than Miramax has taken out for ”Cider House.”

Indeed, the trade ads have become a sticking point for both studios, and the Academy. ”It’s a concern — anything that suggests that Oscar can be bought is damaging,” says Ric Robertson, executive administrator of the Academy, which in recent years has instituted strict campaigning regulations. ”I don’t think there’s a lot we can do about trade ads.”

But it’s Miramax that seems to take the most abuse, with rivals’ tongues endlessly wagging about the possibility of buying the award. The studio, which boasts one of the largest and savviest PR departments in the industry, bolsters its voting bloc by enlisting outside publicists to handle various aspects of its Oscar campaign, such as screenings, gossip-column items, or Best Song nominees. ”’Cider House’ represents a masterful job of doing what Miramax does best, which is media manipulation,” says DreamWorks’ Press.

Miramax publicity president Marcy Granata responds, ”There’s no black magic going on here. It’s a genuinely good film that people genuinely like.” Miramax further insists its use of outside publicists is completely aboveboard. ”We don’t put somebody at parties to chat up our films,” says exec VP Cynthia Swartz.

Should ”Cider House” walk away with Oscar, expect Miramax backlash to hit full throttle. But the company doesn’t seem flustered. Says Granata: ”People don’t vote for companies. They vote for movies.”

(Additional reporting by Gillian Flynn and Jeff Jensen)