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''Chocolat'' is Miramax's best shot at Oscar glory

The romantic comedy could revive the studio’s lagging art house rep

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Juliette Binoche, Chocolat

Miramax’s mantra for Oscar season might be described as: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In the vein of such popular, literary minded, and award friendly releases as ”The English Patient” and ”Shakespeare in Love,” the studio is now serving ”Chocolat,” a European American production that seems designed to attract mainstream moviegoers and Academy voters alike.

Starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, the comedy opened in mid- December in New York and Los Angeles, and is now playing nationwide. ”Miramax always saves the best for last,” says Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source, a box office tracking firm. ”’Chocolat’ has got Best Picture written all over it. There’s no doubt it will be a nominee.”

To solidify that perception, Miramax has stacked the film — an adaptation of Joanne Harris’ novel of the same name — with a top tier cast that reads like a who’s who of cinematic talent: There’s Binoche, an Oscar winner for ”The English Patient,” who stars as Vianne, a single mother and chocolate maker who shakes up a provincial French village with her tempting candy creations.

The supporting cast includes Dame Judi Dench (an Oscar winner for ”Shakespeare in Love”) and Lena Olin, who, like Binoche, was first introduced to U.S. audiences with her starring role in ”The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Overseeing the proceedings is director Lasse Hallstrom, who shepherded Miramax’s ”The Cider House Rules” to seven Oscar nominations last year.

Now that ”Chocolat” has scored five Golden Globe nominations, which are considered a bellwether for the Oscars, is Hallstrom expecting a repeat performance? ”I really try to stay away from speculation,” he says. ”I make the movie, and if Miramax can get something extra by placing it in Oscar contention, that’s great.”

Hallstrom may be playing it cool, but the studio is clearly enthusiastic about the film’s prospects. According to Marcy Granata, Miramax’s president of publicity, early Academy screenings for ”Chocolat” have yielded ”very positive word of mouth.” Though the film has grossed very little so far, the studio has time — until Feb. 13, when Oscar nominations are announced — to keep building interest in it.

Indeed, timing is key to this movie’s importance to the studio. While Miramax’s Dimension division enjoyed great success this year with ”Scream 3” and ”Scary Movie,” there is a widespread industry perception that its art house side was suffering from an off year. Aside from the contemporary version of ”Hamlet,” starring Ethan Hawke, which opened to strong reviews and landed on several critical 10 best lists, the studio’s early 2000 slate has included such forgettable fare as ”Committed” (budgeted at $3 million, it grossed only $32,000) and ”Down to You” (budget: $9 million; gross, $20 million).

When ”The Golden Bowl” — a Merchant-Ivory drama starring Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte — debuted at the Cannes film festival to mediocre reviews, Miramax dumped the movie entirely (Lion’s Gate plans to release it in April). Even the star driven romance ”Bounce,” starring Miramax regulars Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck, performed below expectations, grossing $35 million.

Most recently, the studio’s other literary minded December release, ”All the Pretty Horses,” starring Matt Damon and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, opened to mixed reviews and was virtually shut out of critical top 10 lists and the Golden Globes (its only nomination was for best musical score).

Still, Granata says, ”Horses” should not be written off: She argues that Thornton’s previous film, ”Sling Blade,” overcame initial resistance to become an Academy Award winner. An even better example may be ”The Cider House Rules,” a movie that didn’t get much respect from critics but went on to score multiple Oscar nominations and a $60 million gross.

Not surprisingly, Granata laughs off the idea that this has been a less than stellar year for Miramax: ”We’ve heard the chorus before. We know how Cal Ripken and Michael Jordan must feel.” And Oscar voters may prove her right: A hit, even a modest one, sends the message that the studio is back. ”They’re going to finish the year like they always do, on a very positive, solid note,” says Bucksbaum, “and no one is going to remember the previous failures they had during the year.”