Handling a prestige film in North America has always called for a combination of art and science and, faced with today's increasingly crowded market place, it is more important than ever distributors get the balance right.

This season alone finds a multitude of films in the mix: from critical darlings such as Atonement, No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Juno to trickier releases including The Kite Runner and Lust, Caution. Each one presents its own challenges.

'There are clearly too many of this kind of film at the same time,' says Mark Gill, the former president of Miramax Films, who saw Oscar success with March Of The Penguins as head of Warner Independent Pictures.

He now jointly heads finance, production and sales house The Film Department. 'Every film made for adults generally comes out in the same three months from September 15-December 30 and it's easy to get lost at sea.'

'The market place is absolutely saturated,' agrees Lakeshore Entertainment's head of worldwide marketing and distribution David Dinerstein, the former co-chief of Paramount Classics and a veteran studio consultant.

'You can no longer count on old-fashioned ingenuity - you're not only planning for the perfect date but you have to have deep pockets.

'Anyone who isn't willing to invest at least $1m-plus is fooling themselves about getting into the game. That's not to say it won't work, but smaller films increasingly find it hard to compete against companies with larger resources.'

According to Gill (who points out it is hard to quantify awards campaign spends because consumer ad campaigns to sell tickets can be used to promote films to the Academy), it can cost in the range of $500,000 to promote a smaller film and $3m-$4m or more for a bigger release. But the rewards can be huge.

Mixed fortunes

While Joel and Ethan Coen's Cormac McCarthy crime saga No Country For Old Men has notched $33.4m through Miramax in the five weeks since it launched on November 9 and Warner Bros' corporate thriller Michael Clayton has taken close to $40m since it opened on October 5, others have floundered.

Clayton's stablemate The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has plundered a mere $3.8m since it opened on September 21, despite the presence of Brad Pitt. Universal's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, in which Cate Blanchett reprises her breakout role as Elizabeth I, has taken $16.3m in nine weeks. Lions For Lambs was the first big release for the revitalised United Artists with its dream cast of Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. It went out the same day as No Country For Old Men and has taken just $14.9m to date.

'Far too many of these films have tragic (story) endings,' Gill says, noting a heavy contingent of war-themed autumn releases including awards-season hopefuls such as Lions For Lambs, In The Valley Of Elah, Grace Is Gone and the upcoming Charlie Wilson's War.

'The war films have suffered because the public isn't politically engaged and they see enough suffering on the news every day. There's a long history of films with upbeat endings getting key Oscars, such as Little Miss Sunshine, Shine or Il Postino,' he says. 'This year we have had one depressing film after another until the Coen brothers came along with No Country For Old Men and the box office took off. Now (Fox Searchlight's) Juno looks set to become another success.'

The long game

Campaign planning generally starts in July. No Country For Old Men's de facto campaign launched on a wave of enthusiastic reviews in Cannes in May and gained momentum through Toronto, a key, if bloated and highly competitive, launch platform in the North American awards season. But getting into Toronto does not mean it is plain sailing from there.

'Let's say you get your film in,' Dinerstein says. 'Now you're competing against 10, 20 or 30 other films throughout the festival.

You need to be able to negotiate beforehand with the festival where you believe you can garner the best slot. People want to be in the first weekend of the festival, but while it's better than the end of the festival I don't always believe that's the best slot.

And then you need to decide if you want a gala, an evening screening, and so on. There are so many factors.'

Not every successful awards campaign begins in the autumn.

'When we started out negotiations with Lionsgate on Crash, Bob Yari wanted that film to be released in the fall,' says Neil Sacker, Gill's partner at The Film Department and a fellow high-ranking Miramax veteran who served previously as Yari Film Group COO.

'However Lionsgate said Toronto was crowded and they didn't have time to make an effective campaign with all those films playing, so we went sooner.'

Through judicious use of promotional screenings, critical support and advertising, Crash opened in May 2005 in North America and went on to win three Academy Awards including best picture the following February.

'How you operate (in the prestige arena) varies from film to film,' says Focus Features' CEO James Schamus, days after Atonement received seven Golden Globe nominations.

'What we're doing this year with Atonement is similar to what we did in our first year at Focus Features when we had The Pianist. After The Pianist won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, we put it in the vault and didn't let it see the light of day until much, much later.

'With Atonement we're doing a similar thing - we premiered it at Venice and the critics anointed it the Oscar front-runner. We wanted to make sure that when it arrived here, there was high anticipation and it sparked a critical discussion about its artistry.

'It was very important to find the right date (December 7) and know we had a film that spoke to the aspirations and interests of audiences. And with Academy voters, we're dealing with an electorate whose tastes and interests and appetites are proven to be audacious.'

For Schamus, the primary focus is to engage the public 'in an ongoing dialogue about the discovery of the movie'. Awards success, he says, is a welcome bonus.

'You want to keep your film in people's minds in a meaningful way. We want people to see the film on the big screen and as few voters as possible to see it on a screener. We try to get our talent along to Guild screenings.'

Atonement's position as Globes front-runner and a good second weekend has raised its early tally to $2.9m, suggesting good results at the box office - Schamus says it will play well into January - but not every film on Focus' slate has worked as well. Reservation Road took a disappointing $125,000 while Talk To Me grossed $4.5m.

However, Lust, Caution has made $4m to date, an impressive tally for a Chinese-language art film in the North American market.

'I'm old enough to know that you can't ignore reality,' Schamus says. 'It's about resources. If a film doesn't generate a presence in the marketplace, it's hard to jump-start it.'

Playing all the angles

'What we tend to be seeing now is that in order to compete you have to play the game,' Dinerstein says. 'There are dozens of invitations to see a special screening of a film with star or director in attendance. Obviously there are also events staged by the WGA, DGA, SAG, Bafta, and the list goes on, in terms of the things one needs to do to plant the appropriate seeds.

'Blogs like Deadline Hollywood and the LA Times' Gold Derby and The Envelope are becoming more important because the idea is to get critics talking about a film, which in turn generates buzz among the public.'

What is more, with a US writers strike in progress US distributors have lost the late-night talk shows as a valuable promotional platform.

'That means that in some ways the season could end up being more about placing ads in trades and the grassroots tactics like the special screenings and the parties in honour of talent, (to) keep people mindful of a film,' Dinerstein says.

Once the nominees are known, a distributor can expect to pay a little less than the original amount marketing the film all over again. The 'Oscar corridor' from the nominations announcement on January 22 to the 80th Annual Academy Awards ceremony on February 24 will be a lucrative time for the Oscar nominees. 'Regardless of whether your film wins, this is the time it makes the most money,' Gill says.