What do Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Judy Dench, Penelope Cruz, Edward Norton, Forest Whitaker and Naomi Watts have in common? They are actors with new films that could be playing in theaters now, but Triangle audiences will not be seeing them until early next year.

With much consternation, area theater owners have witnessed a gradual erosion in the number of blue-chip releases available to them during the holiday season, traditionally a fertile period for quality films.

“I’m absolutely having trouble finding viable films to fill this month’s schedule,” says Hemanth Kashinath, president of Path Entertainment, which owns the six-screen Galaxy Cinema in Cary.

“It’s as bad this year as I’ve ever seen it,” says Bruce Stone, owner of the Chelsea and Varsity theaters in Chapel Hill. “The film distributors are in mindless competition for the same audience, so they think the same way and do the same things to market their films and devil take the highmost.”

As a result, highly anticipated films like Notes on a Scandal, Volver, The Painted Veil and Children of Men will not be seen locally until mid-January at the earliest. However, the prime examples of the frustration felt by theater owners are the Whitaker-starring vehicle Last King of Scotland and Kate Winslet’s Little Children. Both of these films were initially released on a limited basis in October yet still have not made their Triangle debuts.

“I have begged and pleaded for months for a print of Little Children,” says John Munson, general manager of Raleigh’s Rialto Theatre. “And, Last King of Scotland is not set for release here until next month at the same time as all those other new films. We do not have enough screens to accommodate that many movies, so one or more of them are going to lose out.”

Munson says the situation has gotten so dire that he has considered bringing back Little Miss Sunshine for a second run. Indeed, last weekend Kashinath went so far as to book Army of Shadows, the celebrated French Resistance thriller that played elsewhere in the Triangle last summer.

Some of the reasons behind this platform release scheduling are perennial. Smaller studios often eschew pitting their films against the big-budget films that come out during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons because, as Stone says, “they believe [the major films] suck all the air out of the marketplace.” And, of course, studios wait to release their Oscar hopefuls close to the start of the awards season so that they are fresh in the minds of the voters.

In the case of Little Children and Last King of Scotland, the reasons are somewhat more complex. The high hopes for both films were somewhat dashed when their initial openings in other markets underachieved at the box office. So, in the case of Last King, the studio made the decision to alter the release schedule and wait until January to roll out the film, hoping an expected Academy Award nomination for star Forest Whitaker will reenergize interest in the film.

Indeed, it is ultimately the desire for awards that dictates when indie and mid-major films are widely released, says Nicolette Aizenberg, director of field publicity and promotions for Miramax, whose film The Queen, released locally last month, has proven one of the few shining stars for Triangle art houses this fall.

“An award can make or break a small movie,” says Aizenberg. “Unlike last year when there were more mid-major films garnering Oscar buzz, this year it is mostly the big studio films that are getting early attention. So, the smaller films are hedging their bets and waiting to go wide until closer to the time to cast votes.”

When the date of the Academy Awards ceremony was changed from March to February in 2004, it was initially believed that smaller films would also need to move up their release dates. However, gradually the opposite has occurred. “Because both the Golden Globe awards and Oscar nominations are announced in January, more mid-major studios have now decided to hold their best films so that they come out at the same time and are therefore fresh in the minds of the voters and the general public,” says Aizenberg. “And, if they’re lucky enough to win an award or get a nomination, they get the double benefit of having increased attention paid to a film that just opened in theaters.”

While local theaters await the impending January glut, there are notable films that could potentially fill the schedule. Although critically panned, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus stars Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. and features a screenplay written by former Duke associate professor Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary). The Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has garnered a number of awards on the European and independent film festival circuits. There’s also Candy, starring Heath Ledger, and 10 Items or Less, with Morgan Freeman, both of which have opened elsewhere.

“It’s strange business,” says Stone. “There’s always something out there to just throw up on the screen, but you try to show things that might be interesting.”