Oscar buzz is the first major public phase of an increasingly lengthy and often grueling campaign leading up to the Academy Awards -- a time for studios, publicists and other partisans to unleash pre-awards season buildups for far more films and filmmakers than there are statuettes to go around.
It's sort of like spring training in baseball, when hope springs eternal and every team looks like a World Series contender on paper.
The Los Angeles Times reported recently that Hollywood has already been hard at work for months plotting Oscar strategies that are largely based on the model pioneered by Miramax several years ago, and successfully adopted by DreamWorks Pictures more recently.
The two studios have won four of the last five best picture awards between them, waging aggressive lobbying campaigns on behalf of their productions. The lobbying has become so fiercely competitive that the Academy tightened several rules this year on how far promotional efforts may go to drum up support for pet projects.
Some frontrunners are already emerging -- but unless you are a Hollywood insider or part of the chosen few who are invited to test screenings, you haven't seen them yet.
Director Ron Howard's new movie, "A Beautiful Mind," won't be in theaters until Christmas -- and even then, it will be for a limited run, just to qualify for the Oscars. Yet some film executives are already engraving an Oscar nameplate for the Universal Pictures release -- and these are people who don't even work at Universal.
"I've seen it and it's going to win," one executive flatly told the New York Daily News.
"It's an amazing piece of work and a huge leap for Howard," said another. "The way you feel at the end of this film is the way everyone wants to feel right now."
Right now, of course, is a reference to the new world we're living in post-Sept. 11.
The movie stars Russell Crowe as the brilliant but troubled mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., who manages to overcome his bout with paranoid schizophrenia to win a Nobel Prize. His co-star, Jennifer Connelly, is getting some Oscar buzz as well.
A lot of critics are putting the upcoming Will Smith movie, "Ali," in the same class as "A Beautiful Mind," pitting the brains of Nash against the fists -- and wit -- of "The Greatest."
Those might be the early favorites, but in the season of Oscar buzz, there's room for supporters of all kinds of movies to shoot the moon and predict Academy recognition for their favorite projects and filmmakers. And since only a handful of people have seen those two pictures, the enthusiastic thumbs up could still be overwhelmed later when larger numbers of viewers have weighed in and a consensus begins to form.
Speaking of movies that hardly anyone has seen yet, writer-director Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" is being mentioned, even though Crowe recently decided to reshoot some scenes based on the reaction of a test screening audience. Still, considering his success with "Almost Famous" and "Jerry Maguire," it's safe to speculate that his reteaming with Tom Cruise will at least be a worthy subject of Oscar speculation.
Likewise with Lasse Hallström's "Shipping News," adapted from Annie Proulx's novel about a newspaperman trying to put his life back together after his wife dies. Hallström's last two movies -- "Chocolat" and "The Cider House Rules" -- were nominated for best picture, and "The Shipping News" stars two of the Academy's current darlings, Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore.
Frank Darabont merits consideration for his Christmas release, "The Majestic," because his last two pictures -- "The Green Mile" (1999) and "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) -- were nominated for best picture. Darabont was not nominated for best director either time, but he was nominated both times for outstanding screenplay adaptation.
"The Majestic" stars Jim Carrey as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who gets amnesia in a car crash and establishes a new life in a small town. Carrey won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards in 1998-1999 for "The Truman Show" and "Man in the Moon," but there is no detectable Oscar buzz associated with his performance in "The Majestic" up to this point.
Fox has announced plans to re-release "Moulin Rouge" with special engagements in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco on Nov. 21, leading to speculation that the studio will mount an Oscar campaign on behalf of the movie and its star, Nicole Kidman.
Aside from Kidman, others who are being mentioned in the best actress buzz include Sissy Spacek for "In the Bedroom;" Tilda Swinton for "The Deep End;" and Renée Zellweger for "Bridget Jones's Diary."
Oscar buzzers tend to focus on movies released late in the year, but there is considerable buzz around DreamWorks' smash hit animated comedy, "Shrek," which came out on May 1 and went on to gross $266.6 million and climb to 13th place on the list of all-time U.S. blockbusters -- ahead of last year's smash, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
Like "Beauty and the Beast" -- which was nominated for best picture in 1991 -- there has been talk about a best picture nomination for "Shrek." That possibility may have been diminished by the decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a new category for best animated feature -- unless Academy voters agree with DreamWorks executives who are say "Shrek" is the best picture -- animated or otherwise.
There have been reports that the studio might re-release "Shrek" in Los Angeles and New York in December with new footage, as part of a campaign for both best picture and best animated feature nominations. Nov. 1 is the deadline for submitting entries in the new best animated feature category -- and the list of entrants is expected to include "Shrek," Disney's "Monsters, Inc.," Paramount's "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," and Richard Linklater's current release, "Waking Life."
"Monsters, Inc.," is the latest computer animated project from Pixar Animation Studios -- which earned a special achievement Oscar for "Toy Story" director and co-writer John Lasseter in 1995. Lasseter, who also shared directing and writing credits on "A Bug's Life" (1998) and "Toy Story 2" (1999), is a producer on "Monsters, Inc."
There have been reports that DreamWorks was considering a limited Christmas release for "The Road to Perdition" in order to qualify it for this year's Oscars sweepstakes, but the company says it has no such plans. Directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), "The Road to Perdition" stars Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in the story of a hitman bent on revenge after his wife and child are murdered.
Other films getting mentioned as possible Oscar material include "Memento," the independent film starring Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") as an amnesiac trying to solve a crime, and "Amelie," a French film about a waitress with a gift for brightening the lives of people around her.
France is submitting "Amelie" as its candidate for best foreign-language film. Miramax, which will release the movie in the United States on Nov. 2, reportedly plans to campaign for a best picture nomination as well.
Only a handful of movies -- including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Life Is Beautiful" -- have been nominated for both best picture and best foreign language picture.
Miramax has pulled the new Martin Scorsese movie, "Gangs of New York," out of the 2001 Oscar pool. Not only will the movie not be released in time to qualify for this year's Oscars -- so far, Miramax has yet even to commit to a release date in 2002.
Serious consideration also has to be given to "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," the first of director Peter Jackson's three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
And then there's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," directed by Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire"). Stranger things have happened, but there seems to be no expectation in Hollywood that "Potter" will receive any Oscar consideration outside of the technical awards -- costumes, set decoration, visual effects, etc.
Soon the buzz will give way to speculation, informed largely by intense lobbying campaigns. Before you know it, the speculation will dissolve into handicapping, and Hollywood will be counting the days to Oscar night.
Nominations for the 74th Annual Academy Awards will be announced on Feb. 12, 2002. The Oscars will be presented on March 24, 2002 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, in ceremonies to be televised over ABC-TV.