Academy Awards nominations are only 3 months away, and ''Saving Private Ryan'' is in the lead

Ah, the joys of November: a snap in the autumn air, a sweeps month on TV, and, of course, jumping the gun to make some premature conclusions about this year’s Oscar race. Sure, the nominations are still three months away, and, yeah, some big flicks haven’t made it to the multiplex yet. But as any over-caffeinated Miramax publicist could tell you, it’s never too early to start talking Oscar. After all, it’s not really fall until someone says ”For your consideration…” With that in mind, here’s the latest update on this year’s biggest contenders. Ladies and gentlemen, for your consideration:

BELOVED Three weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey’s opus was as sure a thing as you could find Oscar-wise. Then Beloved actually opened. In its first 17 days, the massively hyped epic earned a shockingly meager $18.7 million — not even close to the $30.6 million Saving Private Ryan made in its first weekend alone. The surprising audience resistance means trouble in terms of awards. ”Beloved is long gone,” one veteran campaigner says bluntly. ”At best, it’ll get nominated for some performances and maybe production design.” What went wrong? Analysts point to the tough-sell story, which gave the film an art-house feel. Others suggest Disney set itself up for a fall with an overly ambitious 1,501-screen release. ”If this movie had platformed,” says the campaigner, ”you wouldn’t be talking about a bomb.”

Disney is busy trying to salvage the situation. ”The Academy Awards aren’t about box office,” says the studio’s publicity VP, Terry Curtin. ”These are not the People’s Choice Awards. We think [Beloved] deserves more recognition. So we’re going to push harder to make that happen.” That effort will include a revamped advertising campaign, which the studio hopes to debut in December after snagging some early critics’ awards. It hopes.

THE TRUMAN SHOW If Beloved dropped the Oscar ball, Truman is in the best position to pick it up. The trick will be getting voters to remember it. Though Paramount released the film in June, just seven weeks before Ryan, ”it seems like it came out ages ago,” says a competing studio exec. True enough. While Truman garnered near-universal critical praise for its innovative plot and for Jim Carrey’s performance, a lot of water has passed under the cinematic bridge since then. For one thing, Pleasantville, which plays with many of the same themes, opened to decent box office last month. And there’s been much hoopla recently surrounding Carrey’s next project, the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Both developments serve to make Truman feel even more distant. Paramount execs say they have no special plans to revive their film’s profile; they’re counting on year-end critical citations to reemphasize Truman‘s merits. Also, the film’s Jan. 12 video release should breathe new life into the property; a similar strategy worked for Fargo in 1997.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN With their competitors falling like soldiers at Normandy, perhaps Steven Spielberg and company should start clearing their mantels now. Says one Oscar strategist, the race ”is theirs to lose.” About the only flaw may be Ryan‘s excessive gore quotient, something that could influence squeamish Academy members. Still, as one studio exec puts it, ”with Beloved, there’s a sense of uneasiness. [Slavery] is a subject that makes audiences uncomfortable. [Ryan] is about the kind of heroism audiences can relate to.” Ryan faces one final hurdle: The Thin Red Line, director Terrence Malick’s buzz-heavy WWII drama, due Dec. 25. No wonder DreamWorks is planning to mount a Ryan rerelease in January.

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