By EW Staff
Updated January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Flash-forward to the night of March 24. The red carpet is in place. Spotlights sweep the air. Nominees step from limos outside Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium in a blaze of flashbulbs, just in time for the 69th annual Academy Awards. Look! There’s dashing Geoffrey Rush! And the glamorous Brenda Blethyn! And there are those hot new directors Scott Hicks and Anthony Minghella!

Who? What? Stop tape…. No, you haven’t wandered into a bizarro Oscar night starring unknowns. In fact, such celebrities as Tom Cruise and Lauren Bacall and Woody Harrelson will probably be on hand to ignite the strobes of the paparazzi. But this year, with big studios turning out few potential winners and the burgeoning independent film scene gaining ground with mass audiences, the limelight on Oscar night will be democratically rationed among Hollywood giants and deserving dwarves.

While the megablockbusters like Independence Day and Twister will probably have to settle for a technical nomination or two, the five Best Picture slots could easily be filled with little movies like Shine (the surprise hit from Australia about an emotionally born-again pianist) and Fargo (the offbeat favorite about a bungled kidnapping in Minnesota). ”Hopefully, that’s not the case,” says Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic, who’s rooting for his studio’s The Crucible and Courage Under Fire. ”I don’t think there’s any lack of good studio pictures.”

At least there’s no lack of films. Over the holidays, 40 new movies opened and threw the Oscar race into further turmoil. Not only are the studios competing with upstarts, they’re jockeying wildly among themselves. ”It’s wide open this year and that’s great,” insists Paramount Pictures’ executive VP of worldwide publicity Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors. ”Hollywood wants to nominate great performances, and a lot of tastes will be satisfied.”

Still, the studios have reason to feel nervous. Oscar nominations boost box office. With the exception of Fargo — which has already been released on videotape — this year’s prime contenders, like The English Patient, Shine, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, are relatively new. Oscar nominations would raise their profiles and buoy their ticket sales. They all aspire to Pulp Fiction riches — that surprise Oscar nominee had grossed $76 million prior to its seven nominations, and ultimately made $107 million; they’d happily settle for another Crying Game, which made $16 million prior to its six nominations, and finally grossed $62 million. A low-budget art film like this year’s critical darling Breaking the Waves — shot entirely with a handheld camera by Danish director Lars von Trier — would see its ticket sales increase exponentially in the wake of a major nomination or two.

The varied glut of contenders has intensified the importance of this year’s Oscar campaigns, which can cost up to $500,000 per film and could make the difference in being overlooked or emerging victorious on the big night. Clamoring for attention, studios are more dependent than ever on promotional ads in trade papers, Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, critics’ awards, and videocassettes, which have been sent out to the 5,173 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.