In Pictures: The 'indie films' battling for Oscar glory
This Christmas, I hazard that watching the Queen's traditional speech will play second fiddle – in the nation's holiday plans – to venturing out to witness The King's Speech.
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This hugely-anticipated film stars Colin Firth and, at this admittedly-early stage, is the roughly even-money favourite to win Best Picture – along with a sackful of other gongs – at February's Academy Awards.
The movie is cut from unlikely cloth. It's based on King George VI's relationship with a speech therapist called Lionel Louge, who was hired in the 1920s to cure his chronic stammer.
But it opened to standing ovations at the Telluride Film Festival and won audience awards at the Hamptons and Aspen. Firth, who plays the future monarch – and was, of course, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar earlier this year for A Single Man – now boasts what pundits generally call a sporting chance of going one better.
All of which means, of course, that it's a very special time of year again. The period when shadows lengthen, evenings close in and Hollywood asks discerning filmgoers to forget about the tent-pole rubbish it's been churning out all summer and instead head to the cinema to catch intelligent, independent-minded movies expected to make waves during the heady few months of red-carpet excess known as "Awards Season".
To qualify for the Oscars, a film must have run for at least a week in both Los Angeles and New York by 31 December. As a result of this rule, a slew of well-regarded titles have been stored-up for release in the coming weeks. Their makers hope they'll remain in the minds of a few thousand voting Academy members when decision time arrives a few weeks into the New Year.
For moviegoers, this is therefore the best of times. Given that recent years have been peculiarly tough on the independent film, the November/ December "corridor" has become perhaps the only time of year when many small and medium-sized titles have a chance of being released into cinemas.
In normal circumstances, in today's market, many of these films might struggle to wash their face financially. An awards season "run" can, however, add tens of millions of dollars to their box office. The Hurt Locker, for example, made just $4m (£2.6m) in its first month in cinemas, in July 2009. But by the time it had been named Best Picture the following March had generated almost $50m.
Tom O'Neil, the editor of the awards website Gold Derby, and one of Hollywood's foremost Oscar-ologists, cites Danny Boyle's coming movie 127 Hours as a classic example of the sort of film that will these days only get released in the run-up to awards season (Slumdog Millionaire, of course, was very nearly not released at all). The movie's Oscar campaign will become part and parcel of its marketing.
"It's one of those mid-budget movies considered a possible Oscar contender for months. It's done well at Toronto and has a serious lead star and director," he says.
"That kind of buzz will eventually bleed across not just Hollywood but also into the mass market and propel it to must-see status.
Mr O'Neil adds that only a handful of the Studio films released so far this year (Inception, The Social Network, The Kids Are All Right and Toy Story 3) have a decent shot of even featuring on awards shortlists. It therefore follows that the vast majority of this year's finest movies are about to arrive in theatres, in a brilliant rush.