With much of the film industry focused on the Oscars later this month, it's hard to believe that anybody could be thinking about next year's Academy Awards ceremony.
Yet that's what many senior figures in charge of film festivals and awards ceremonies worldwide are doing right now - thanks to the decision last year by the Academy to bring forward its 2004 ceremony by one month to February 29.
The move has created a host of anxious diary date shifts as rival awards ceremonies struggle to position themselves just ahead of the Oscar behemoth and festivals manoeuvre to make sure they find themselves best placed to profit from the merry-go-round of stars promoting their films.
The move has already resulted in several other North American awards bodies bringing forward their 2004 galas. Among the more significant declarations so far are: the Directors Guild of America, which moves from March 1 in 2003 to Feb 7 in 2004; the Producers Guild of America (March 2 to Jan 25); and the Screen Actors Guild (March 9 to Feb 22).
At the time of writing, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Writers Guild Of America, were yet to announce a date.
Internationally, the UK's BAFTA awards moved fast last year to bring themselves ahead of the Oscars once more. It will take place on Feb 8 next year. "If we had stayed where we were, we'd have been a week before the Oscars. That would have been untenable for everybody," said BAFTA boss Amanda Berry.
The Berlin International Film Festival last week also announced its dates for 2004. Taking place between Feb 5-15, it will be the earliest scheduling of the festival since it moved to February in 1978. Berlin's early dates also prompted a knock-on shift for the Rotterdam Film Festival which, anxious not to overlap with the German event, brought its planned dates forward by a week.
Perhaps more significantly, however, will be the effect on distributors' release strategies. For years now the studios have structured their Oscar campaigns within a rough three-month timeframe, starting with the National Board of Review awards in early December and climaxing with the announcement of the Best Picture Oscar in late March.
While a revised schedule will not unduly affect the Oscar prospects of blockbuster releases like The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, which can count on the full weight of New Line's marketing support, there is concern that the smaller distributors' platform releases may suffer.
Studio executives are skilled at knowing when to roll out their platform releases - serious pictures like Chicago, The Hours and The Pianist that open in a limited number of theatres and generate sufficient buzz before expanding into more sites. Generally smaller in scope and lower profile than the average tentpole picture, platform releases need to come out early enough to be seen by awards voters and build public awareness and box office momentum. Too early, however, and the picture may be forgotten. Too late and nobody will know about it.
Miramax COO Rick Sands, whose company is distributing this year's Oscar favourite Chicago as well as Gangs Of New York, Frida and The Quiet American domestically, told Screen International: "We will have less time to platform our titles. So the marketplace is going to be faster. One of two things will happen: you will either open smaller and then expand or you will open around Christmas and expand more quickly after that." Miramax's early 2004 Oscar prospects Cold Mountain and Human Stain, which both star Nicole Kidman, have been set for Dec 25 and fourth quarter 2003 respectively.
The smaller distributors that tend to buy at the Venice and Toronto festivals typically require a longer lead-in to cue up their picture for a nomination and then go for the extra box office. Monster's Ball, which famously earned Halle Berry her Oscar last year, earned around half of its $31m domestic box office for Lions Gate in the lucrative six-week window between Oscar nomination and Oscar ceremony. In a compressed timeframe, smaller distributors may struggle to do the kind of figures enjoyed by Monster's Ball.
Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing at New Line Cinema, said at ShoWest that he did not think there would be much impact at all. He argued that platform releases were not so time-specific and could go with the flow as the whole awards campaign process is shunted forward by a month. His assertion that November and December will now become the core campaigning season,
2004's two month event crush
Sundance Festival: Jan 15-25
Rotterdam Festival: Jan 21-Feb 1
PGA Awards: Jan 25
Berlin Festival: Feb 5-15
DGA Awards: Feb 7
BAFTA Awards: Feb 8
SAG Awards: Feb 22
AFM: Feb 25-March 3.
Academy Awards: Feb 29
* Golden Globes yet to confirm 2004 dates