HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Why are postal trucks delivering thousands of ominous-looking black boxes containing videocassettes of the thriller "The Silence of the Lambs?"
Why are executives at Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox holding strategy sessions that focus on generating last-minute support for forthcoming films like Oliver Stone's "J.F.K." and Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon"? Why have Robin Williams, Jodie Foster and Kevin Costner suddenly decided to attend a charity lunch next week sponsored by the Hollywood Women's Press Club?
The answer is Academy Award fever, which is rapidly enveloping Hollywood.
Fully aware that the award for best picture gave an extraordinary box-office lift to recent winners like "Driving Miss Daisy," "Rain Man" and "The Last Emperor," studios are planning campaigns that include expensive parties to meet Robin or Kevin or Bette or Barbra or Jodie or other potential nominees, holding screenings all over town and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertisements in Daily Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter.
The 64th annual Academy Awards ceremony will take place on March 30. Nominations are to be announced on Feb. 19. But early trends will be obvious in a couple of weeks. The Los Angeles film critics are to announce their awards on Dec. 14, followed by the New York film critics three days later.
Several factors make this year's awards especially unpredictable. The first is that the number of quality films produced in 1991 has been minimal.
Another is that a few potential contenders are opening late, during the Christmas season. Among them are Barbra Streisand's "Prince of Tides," based on the Pat Conroy novel; the Kasdan drama "Grand Canyon"; "J.F.K.," about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Steven Spielberg's "Hook," and Barry Levinson's "Bugsy." (One dark horse, Steven Soderbergh's "Kafka," starring Jeremy Irons, will open in New York and Los Angeles for one week starting today to qualify for the Academy Awards, then re-open around the country in January.)
Yet another factor is the possibility that the Walt Disney Co.'s highly praised "Beauty and the Beast" may be the first animated film ever nominated.
"With the exception of 'The Silence of the Lambs,' Academy-type movies have only begun appearing now, late in the year, so the most interesting development is the gound swell already starting for 'Beauty and the Beast,'" said Laurence Mark, the executive producer of "Working Girl" and a former executive vice president for production at 20th Century Fox.
Film executives have already begun drawing up confidential lists of contenders in numerous categories, replete with long shots. Several films and their performers and creators dominate the lists. These films include "The Fisher King," "Boyz N the Hood," "Little Man Tate" and "Thelma and Louise."
By all accounts, the most unpredictable elements of the Academy Awards are both the critical and the box-office responses to various movies.
"For the Boys," for example, stars Bette Midler, a favorite in the film colony who was initially seen as a strong candidate for best actress for her portrayal of a USO entertainer. But the movie has proven to be a box-office disappointment so far, which could diminish Midler's prospects.
Early reviews on the East Coast for Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear," a melodrama starring Robert De Niro as a psychotic ex-convict, were dazzling, enhancing the film's prospects for an Oscar nomination.
But the Los Angeles Times deplored the film's violence and "unapologetic bludgeoning of our sensibilities." At a screening for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a smattering of applause and then hisses greeted the movie's end.
In recent months Disney has been the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper articles with less-than-flattering stories that have focused on the studio's failures, like "V.I. Warshawski," "The Rocketeer," "Scenes From a Mall" and "Billy Bathgate," and tyrannical management style.
But Disney's fortunes have suddenly been revived with "Beauty and the Beast" and may receive additional help from two new films, the remake of "Father of the Bride," starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, and a low-budget, $12-million sleeper, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," about a seemingly normal nanny who wreaks personal vengeance on an unsuspecting mother.