The race for Oscar starts earlier than expected -- Releases like ''The Departed'' and ''The Queen'' kick off Award season

By Dave Karger
Updated October 27, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

As usual, most movie studios have decided to release their big awards contenders during the holiday season. But this year, that holiday seems to be Halloween. On the heels of potential nominees The Departed, The Queen, and Little Children, four Oscar-baiting films — Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, Christopher Nolan’s dueling-magicians tale The Prestige, Sofia Coppola’s anachronistic Marie Antoinette, and the twisted domestic saga Running With Scissors — hit theaters Oct. 20. (Babel and Catch a Fire, meanwhile, debuted Oct. 27.) Why combine Oscar talk with masks and candy? With the Academy Awards scheduled a month earlier the past few years, a quick-release program allows for a full four-month campaign — and provides a safe distance from hot-buzz Christmastime fare like Dreamgirls and The Good Shepherd.

Of course, what’s good for Academy chances may not be good at the box office. The Prestige won the weekend but still had to fend off comparisons to summer sleeper The Illusionist. Flags managed only $10.2 million, despite positive reviews (though Eastwood’s Mystic River opened with only $10.4 million and scored a Best Picture nod). Marie made a little progress overcoming its mixed Cannes reception, but Scissors‘ critical drubbing means its only real shot at a nomination rests with lead actress Annette Bening. In other words, the Augusten Burroughs adaptation got the trick — everyone else, the treat.