A horde of films is being rushed into release by year-end to ensure eligibility for Oscar consideration.

Getting the lion's share of attention and creating great Oscar buzz are several small films. One is "You Can Count on Me." The screenplay was written by Kenneth Lonergan, whose earlier works include "Analyze This," "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and forthcoming "The Lost Army."

Both stars of "You Can Count on Me," Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, are being touted as sure-bets for Oscar nominations.

"This is such a small picture, we never imagined it would have gone this far," says Linney.

The film is indeed small when compared with "The Truman Show," in which she co-starred with Jim Carrey. That blockbuster has grossed $126.6 million worldwide.

Linney says that when "You Can Count on Me" was picked up by Paramount Classics for distribution, the cast and crew were ecstatic. The film was shot in four weeks on a $1 million budget and has been out five weeks in limited release (at 59 theaters). As of last week, it had grossed $2.4 million at the box office.

"That is very good considering its initial classic-platform release," says Erica Blitz of Paramount Classics.

Paramount officials feel the film has great potential and are putting it into wide release after Dec. 22. "It will be in the top 25 markets on multiple screens," including L.A., New York and San Francisco, says Blitz.

Linney's competition for the Best Actress Oscar could pit her against actresses in bigger-budget films with behemoth hype machines behind them, like Julia Roberts in Universal's "Erin Brockovitch," Joan Allen in DreamWorks' "The Contender" and Juliette Binoche in Miramax's "Chocolat," a mid-range-budgeted film directed by Lassee Hallstrom.

Recently released, "Chocolat" has shown great strength in its first week out on eight screens, grossing $157,624 45 percent better than Hallstrom's "Cider House Rules," which debuted in a similar small release strategy last year.

According to Amanda Vincent at Miramax publicity, "Chocolat" is also slated for wider release after the first of the year.

Yet another small film in the running for Oscar consideration is "Shadow of a Vampire," executive produced by Nicholas Cage and directed by E. Elias Merhige ("Begotten"). It stars John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, whose performances are generating Oscar buzz. With a budget of less than $6 million and a shooting schedule of 18 days, Merhige says there was much pre-planning needed.

"John (Malkovich), who resides in the South of France, took a great interest in the movie and graciously invited me to Paris to plot out the movie beforehand," he says.

Merhige says, luckily, he got the use of an old castle in Luxembourg and shot at night, sometimes for up to 18 hours at a time, usually being forced to quit only because of daybreak.

Contributing reporter Anita Talbert can be reached via e-mail at anita@la.com.

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