Hollywood's big studios have launched a choreographed two-pronged attack to wreck the chances of indy films at the next Academy Awards, critics allege.
Many of the films expected to dominate the awards are only now being released, while the Oscars ceremony has been brought forward a month to 28 February, strategies which should ensure that the main players' films are uppermost in the minds of the 5,600 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science when they vote.
Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of the showbusiness magazine Variety, accused the major studios of an orchestrated campaign to squeeze out independent productions. "They stomp on anything that's non-studio," he said. "They have created chaos. They have damaged the business for everyone but themselves, both by the screening issue and changing the season."
The first strategy worked a treat at the last Oscars: the five most acclaimed films (The Hours, Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Pianist and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) were all released in December. But it is resented by independent film-makers who believe it reinforces the hold of Hollywood establishment over the industry's most prestigious gongs.
This year's December blitz began on Friday with the release of Tom Cruise's latest work, The Last Samurai. This week sees the arrival ofThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Meanwhile, Miramax, which has mastered the dark arts of Oscar lobbying, is going down to the wire. It is waiting until Christmas Day for Cruise's former wife, Nicole Kidman, to release Cold Mountain, which co-stars Jude Law and Renee Zellweger and is directed by Anthony Minghella.
Barely a week later, the members will be sent their ballot forms and by 17 January they must submit their selections for the Oscar shortlist, having viewed about 70 films sent to their homes.
And here those trying to challenge the power of the main studios come up against their second problem. By bringing the ceremony forward a month - at the behest of the big studios - academy members have left themselves four weeks less to watch the films, leading to fears that many alternative productions will go unwatched.
Damon Wise, the news editor of Empire magazine, said: "People have less time to watch the films and if certain independent productions are not in the shortlist it will be clear that people have not seen them."
The new date means the Oscars now fall in the middle of the awards season rather than the end. Traditionally, independent films have benefited from the momentum built up by winning other awards. A February ceremony negates this advantage.
Other awards will also suffer because of the change. The last Baftas - which take place in mid-February - stole thunder from the Oscars with the surprise choice of Roman Polanski as director of the year for his work on The Pianist, ahead of Martin Scorsese and Gangs of New York. When the Academy plumped for Polanski a few weeks later, the result lacked drama.
The biggest hopes among the independent productions for the 2004 Oscars are 21 Grams (released last month) starring Sean Penn (who also appears in the much-fancied Mystic River), and Monster, starring Charlize Theron, whose producers have mimicked the major studios by opting for a Christmas Eve launch.
Among the major studios in contention, Twentieth Century Fox has just released Master and Commander, a high-seas adventure movie starring Russell Crowe, days ahead of the rush. Mr Gaydos pointed out that among other nominees, only the racehorse saga Sea Biscuit and the animation Finding Nemo were made in the first half of the year.
Mr Gaydos said: "Hollywood wants to make big pictures that cost $140m [£80m] and get big audiences. They don't want to be in the specialist film business. In fact, they don't want anyone in it. They don't want $1m films competing with their $140m productions."Reuse content