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An Oscar edge?

Timing isn't everything when it comes to the Academy Awards - but it helps.

Two big fall films - Martin Scorsese's box office success The Departed and Clint Eastwood's faltering Flags of Our Fathers - are bookends for the benefits and hazards of releasing acclaimed films early in awards season, when they could either get a jump on front-runner status or be forgotten come Oscar time.

Driven by glowing reviews and word-of-mouth that it's a return to Scorsese's old mobster form, the cops-and-gangsters epic The Departed opened the first week in October and has shot past $115-million at the box office, becoming the director's biggest hit.

The World War II Iwo Jima saga Flags of Our Fathers followed two weeks later with similarly positive reviews. But it opened with modest audiences and has limped to a $33-million return.

Two months into its run, The Departed still is drawing fair-sized crowds, coming in at No. 15 on last weekend's box office chart. Meantime, Flags of Our Fathers already has dropped out of the Top 20

Not that box office receipts are or should be a gauge for a film's Oscar merits. But everybody likes to back a winner. Why audiences largely have passed on Flags is a puzzle, though perhaps its grim, realistic combat footage is too painful a reminder of the military quagmire in Iraq.

On the other hand, The Departed cruises toward the Oscar nominations Jan. 23 looking like a movie that's in for the long haul, like such best picture winners as American Beauty or Eastwood's Unforgiven, which both came out in late summer or early fall.

Hollywood executives brood over the best time to release their films to maximize their commercial prospects. Decisions over timing are especially tough late in the year, when studios release the bulk of their prestige films, adult-oriented dramas whose financial fortunes may climb or crash depending on how the movies fare in the Oscar derby.

Best picture nominations and wins can extend the shelf life of a movie in theaters for weeks or even months, adding tens of millions of dollars to its final take. The deluge of new releases is at its worst now, the month that conventional wisdom dictates is prime time to release awards contenders.

It's the last-shall-be-first philosophy, the notion that Oscar voters have short attention spans.

Note December arrivals that took the top Oscar: A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Million Dollar Baby.

But at the 2006 Oscars in March, virtually everyone expected December release Brokeback Mountain to win. In one of the biggest Oscar upsets ever, Crash - released the previous May - came away with best picture. Perhaps don't yet count out Flags of Our Fathers.