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''The Cider House Rules'' challenges ''American Beauty''

”The Cider House Rules” challenges ”American Beauty”–This year?s Oscar race feels like a political campaign as films compete

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The countdown to super Tuesday has begun. The top candidates — from the longtime front-runner to the underdog upstart — are pressing the flesh, flooding the airwaves with ads, and tearing their opponents’ campaign tactics to shreds.

Don’t be alarmed — you haven’t accidentally picked up a copy of The Nation. We’re talking about the Academy Awards campaign, whose voting deadline is Tuesday, March 21. And while there are basically four old guys left in that other race, 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; a year later, 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.