It's officially Oscar Season. We look at the early playing field.

Somewhere along the line, the film industry gave up on the idea of four seasons in favor of the current model, a setup that features just three, and only two of them really matter. There's Summer, which stretches from the first week of May until the latter days of August; Oscar Season, which traditionally starts in late September/early October and lasts through New Year's Eve; and the Wasteland, an amorphous period that encompasses January, can stretch all the way to March and April, and basically applies to any film that doesn't score a release date in the other two seasons. Guess which one doesn't matter.
Right. Films in the Wasteland fall into two categories: (1) movies that the studios are contractually bound to release into theaters, but which are deemed so abysmal that no exec wants to squander additional cash waging a marketing campaign in the more cutthroat months of the year, and (2) well-made pictures that resist traditional advertising techniques, so the suits just roll the dice. Either way, the studio is hoping for a happy accident, that the general lack of competition will result in a surprise success or, at the very least, enough green to break even.

Summer movies can also be divided into two groups. The first includes the so-called "tent pole" films: big-ticket sequels and remakes, (hopefully) crowd-pleasing action extravaganzas, and high-concept comedies - Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Click, and so on. The second group is smaller and a bit of a gamble. This is the counterprogramming unit, and it presents a more intimate alternative to all of the explosions and spandex. This summer, The Devil Wears Prada scored big going that route. But it doesn't always work.

Which brings us to Oscar Season. This is when the studios unveil their prestige pictures, featuring A-list stars and directors or, at the very least, top-notch source material. This is when you get high-class literary adaptations, actors stretching into unusual (for them) roles, and directors delving into labors of love. It's still early yet - many of the real players wait until late December - but it's a good time to size up the initial playing field.