Harvey takes on the Hobbits in Oscars campaign

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The Independent US

America's other big political contest, the race for the Oscars, is about to shift into high gear. Studio marketing departments are bracing for a down-and-dirty battle whose centrepiece might be described as Harvey versus the Hobbits.

The early favourite for Best Picture appears to be The Return of the King, the third and final instalment of the massive-grossing Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ranged against it is the man who has in many ways defined the tone of modern Oscar campaigns, the outsize co-chairman of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, with Cold Mountain.

But even before the nominations are announced the competition has been tarred by the FBI's claim to have uncovered a video piracy ring, traced back to the private "screener" tapes handed to a veteran Hollywood actor to help him with his voting choices for the Oscars. Carmine Caridi, 70, reportedly passed the tapes to a friend, Russell Sprague, who then transferred them to DVD format and bootlegged them over the internet, the FBI said. The big studios spent much of last year lobbying to end the practice of handing screener copies to voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences precisely to stop this kind of piracy.

It's all deeply embarrassing. Starting tonight, when the eminently flaky Hollywood Foreign Press Association hands out its Golden Globe awards, leading up to the early hours of Tuesday morning, when the Academy Awards list is unveiled, the studio publicists and Oscar campaign managers will be wound as tight as Olympic sprinters awaiting the starting gun.

Awards season is not just about prestige, it is also about boosting box-office receipts, which explains why recent campaigns have turned so dirty so fast - last year's flap over unethical endorsements of Martin Scorsese as Best Director for Gangs of New York, for example, or the previous year's smear campaign against John Nash, the real-life protagonist of A Beautiful Mind. This year's contest promises to be as bruising, despite new rules laid down by the Academy in a high-minded effort to keep the contest clean.

Of the contenders, The Return of the King may not be many people's idea of the best film of the year, but it has earned wide admiration for its epic scope and visual imagination. Expect ferocious competition, however, from Weinstein andCold Mountain, Anthony Minghella's adaptation of the Charles Frazier Civil War bestseller which came out on top of the Golden Globes nominations list. The film has all the ingredients beloved by Academy voters - classy production values, a prestige cast and epic scope, thanks to its Odyssey-goes-to-North-Carolina storyline.

From Miramax's point of view, the film needs all the kudos it can muster to recoup its production cost, estimated at around $110m (£60m). Cold Mountain has grossed only about $67m worldwide; The Return of the King grossed a quarter of a billion dollars in its first five days, an all-time record.

Weinstein's ambitions are likely to be complicated by the abundance of other Oscar-worthy material: Clint Eastwood's moody thriller Mystic River is one candidate.

Another factor is the animosity he has stirred up over the years on account of his volatile temper and ruthless campaigning style. There are those in Hollywood - not just paranoid Miramax executives - who believe this year's good-conduct rules and the shortening of the Awards season were dreamed up to "get Harvey".