By David Poland email@example.com
18 Weeks To Oscar: In The Shadow Of The Hurt Locker
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And in Oscar season, it is an annual ritual. What worked last year? And by “worked,” I mean, how did the film that won Best Picture win?
Obviously, it is reductive to just point to Best Picture. But in the end, most of the money is spent with Best Picture as the real goal. Everything else is nice and very important to the individuals. But the Big Parade… it’s about the Big Award. And there will only be one winner each year.
When American Beauty launched at the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF was already a fall/awards launching pad. But DreamWorks showed it could produce a winner and that became a landmark.
When Chicago outlasted The Pianist for Best Picture, it raised the flag for a pool of actors being a key determining factor for Best Picture.
Million Dollar Baby was last in the pool in its year and won, so the late entry with a major director became fashionable… for a year.
Crash had middling box office and was released early in the year… but the relentless drum beat, the parade of actors in the film and the 100,000-disc pandering to SAG, and letting other films crash and burn before it stepped up was The Move.
Slumdog Millionaire pulled off the trick of being a massive underdog that became a massive hit.
And then The Hurt Locker.
Summit’s campaign did almost everything wrong, by normal standards, except for picking up a great movie and hiring one of the most successful awards consultants. And they won.
A big part of the “not the way it’s done” last year was the strategy of sitting on the summer release, in terms of sending out screeners and running ads for a movie not too many voters had seen, until December.
And guess what the most popular trend in Oscar advertising is this year… yup… waiting until December to start your campaign. Waiting as late as possible to launch your campaign.
It’s almost Halloween and with the release of Toy Story 3 on DVD next week, the first serious Best Picture nomination contender will hit voter’s mailboxes. Summer movies The Kids Are All Right and Inception? No. (Their DVD releases are coming shortly… so watch out for them.) Ambitious films like Winter’s Bone (out on DVD this week… so perhaps shipping to voters), Get Low, The Town, Never Let Me Go, and Shutter Island… all of which will need to draw voter interest that they don’t quite have now… no DVDs yet.
Sony Classics sent out Please Give and Animal Kingdom. Good. Watch them. But we all know they are not major BP candidates. Anchor Bay is trying hard to get people to watch Solitary Man, looking for Michael Douglas love… they started shipping a few weeks ago.
Rolling out the actual movies in time for screenings for groups that nominate in early December is still the way things go. There is simply no avoiding it. The last movie of the season this year, True Grit, screened for Paramount executives just days ago. And now the question will be just how long to wait to roll it out to the various voting groups.
But even Paramount’s other potential heavyweight, The Fighter, is now in dry dock (after the film’s producer, Relativity, showed it to some media) until it’s late enough to bring back into the game.
Now, the argument that the season takes forever and should be shorter is one I subscribe to heartily. But all the drama about the notion of shortening the season’s second phase – Oscars in late January – is belied by the game that is now afoot. When the DVDs start flying, yeah, it’s going to be brutal to get voters to watch the smaller movies… because you didn’t put the movies in front of them when the seasonal DVD shelf was empty… you waited until mid-November, when it was filled with pre-sold product and hits.
The Hurt Locker, a brilliant movie, got lucky that Goliath turned up and gave it someone to sling a rock at. Without Avatar, we would probably be remembering the year that Up In The Air won Best Picture.
The threat that The King’s Speech or True Grit or The Social Network winning Best Picture this year is not going to create movement amongst Academy members to stop them, in turn placing some other film in the catbird seat. That is not to say that they are locks to win or that no other film can win. It’s a long way to The Kodak and we haven’t even seen True Grit yet. But The Academy souring on a frontrunner because the hum starts to be about how that film wouldn’t be the best representative of the Academy’s taste has happened in many years. Not with these films, I don’t think.
In terms of other categories, does it feel like this HAS to be Colin Firth’s year or Duvall’s or Bening’s or Michael Douglas’… or will they all do great work again next year and the year after?
Does Jennifer Lawrence do something Monster-unique in Winter’s Bone? Is Javier Bardem or Geoffrey Rush ever not worthy of an Oscar for a performance? Is Black Swan’s lead performance more Natalie or Darren… 127 Hours’ Danny or James?
Of course, these are all reductive questions and obnoxious to ask out of context. But here’s the context… if the #1 story of the season is the first female director who is going to win an Oscar. And you have, certainly, one of the best films of the year. And the likely winner if you don’t get the gold is a CG mega-film whose popularity is earned, but which people like to mock as simplistic when they don’t see all the detail work. Well, you have a shot at waiting to push in December and being embraced in a unique way.
If you have a very good story, very well told, and some terrific acting, but you don’t have the bait to force the issue without pushing the film in front of people before every film is available any night of the week… you are probably spinning your wheels.
But the biggest factor coming forth in the year of The Hurt Locker, as I see it, is that the lack of an early aggressive campaign in combination with the 10-film Best Picture category, distributors are thinking they don’t have to race too hard to get over the first hurdle, nomination.
I’m not saying they won’t do anything. But they watched Hurt Locker (and An Education and A Serious Man) gross under $13 million and end up nominated.
They saw Sony, based on a small bit of encouragement, ride District 9 to multiple nominations, including Best Picture… still never raising the talent involved much out of obscurity.
And they saw The Blind Side, a clear commercial smash with very little awards support at Warner Bros at first, not only propel Sandra Bullock to an Oscar, but grab a Best Picture nomination as well.
On top of that, Locker made it two years in a row that Best Picture was won by a movie that no other distributor wanted.
(Note: There is no such movie this year, unless you think that Newmarket is going to make The Way Back a serious contender by hiding in for months after Telluride, getting some passion from some bloggers, and not starting a serious campaign until every film in the race has guns blazing.)
So why invest a lot of cash and a lot of heavily focused promotional effort early in the season if you can cruise to a nomination based on the inevitability of your nomination? Of course, a few will lose out in the end. But a few will always lose out in the end, no matter what they do.
Of course, this lack of aggression is part of the dream, kinda. A season without so much campaigning. Let it be about the movies and not the machinery.
That’s one reason why I have been and will always be supportive of a shorter Oscar season. (15 Weeks to Oscar, here we come!)
But reality? There will be as big an awards pile-up this early December as we have ever seen. Almost everyone is trying to pull off the same stunt. Prices for ads will be too high in the last 6 weeks of the Phase One campaign and then get higher, as studios compete for limited space of value. And with all the effort to be careful in targeting the reduced spending, results will be blurry and purse strings will be untied (a bit).
If Social Network wins, private screenings for media before opening a major fall festival (preferably the NY Film Fest) with all kinds of “it’s important” publicity will become the new fad.
If True Grit wins, watch for more December openers that don’t go to festivals.
If The King’s Speech wins, look for more films trying the slow leak from Toronto/Telluride to the Kodak.
In the end, the reality is that good films with smart impresarios like Rudin or Weinstein and filmmakers like Fincher or The Coens and at least enough bait to get voters to watch them, in theaters or on DVDs, will always win the day. Some films will get unfairly manhandled and others given a free pass. Movies with tiny budgets for awards will rarely make the cut and some who spend more to buy their way in will succeed… so long as they have a film people aren’t embarrassed to vote for.
The dynamic changes every year… and stays the same every year. And on we swim…