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David Poland

By David Poland

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…

14 Responses to “18 Weeks To Oscar: In The Shadow Of The Hurt Locker”

  1. The Pope says:

    Typo. The Way Home, surely you mean THE WAY BACK.

  2. Keil Shults says:

    I think he meant Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power.

  3. Keil Shults says:

    I know this isn’t BYOB, but I just wanted to reiterate how little I care for Moulin Rouge.

  4. Keil Shults says:

    Speaking of underhanded diversions, Weinstein should mail out screeners of the 1969 version of True Grit to voters.

  5. Francophile says:

    Of course, it wasn’t the GOLIATH factor that pushed HURT LOCKER into the winner’s circle. It was that just about every major critics organization supported it. That was what made the difference.

  6. Samuel Deter says:

    The Goliath factor definitely helped. In the Bedroom, The Pianist, Brokeback Mountain… many films have been supported by almost all the critics organisations and yet at the end of the day none won. Oscars are about “the story” in the main categories.

    We’ll see which one turns out to be 2010’s.

  7. djiggs says:

    I actually think that you have nailed 9 out of 10 eventual nominees with only Hereafter being the only maybe of the list. But, the one bone that I have to pick is this statement, “Inception ….Yeah… zero chance to win, but it is almost a lock for a nod.” What is your support for this view? Have you polled every Academy member? It is really weird how Inception has this grudging, belittling respect from a lot of “Oscar experts” for a movie that is one of the landmark films of the year. Now, I am not saying this film is one of the greatest films ever created (only time will tell that), but for what it set out to do and how well it accomplished its goals in connecting to a worldwide audience…Christopher Nolan and company pulled off one of the most daunting tasks of the year. I think that is well positioned to be the big winner on Oscar night. Let’s take a look at what I think are pros going for it to win many Oscars and Best Picture.

    1) Placing an original property that appeals to a more adult orientated and intellectual perspective in the middle of season where the industry appeals to the more baser instincts of its consumers…and winning the bet spectacularly!!!

    -To me, the decision to place Inception in the middle of July was the ballsiest move by a major studio in a long time. This was not a Dark Knight, where you had the comfort of a familiar trope or genre…or an Avatar with its new fangled 3D and special effects covering the Dances with Wolves storyline. It was more in the vein of Vertigo or Mulholland Drive or Femme Fatale (i.e. a more personal story from the director) that crossed over into becoming a mainstream hit. To put at least $200 million for an original property, it was as much of a risk for Warner Bros and Nolan to do this film as Danny Boyle to do 127 Hours or Aronofsky to do Black Swan in my opinion.

    2) The box office as of today: $815 million worldwide with $290 million in the USA alone.

    -It is funny that you said in the comments during a Weekend Box Office Hot Blog entry Inception would just break even or eke out a profit and it would not cross $700 million. In fact, you said that you would compliment Inception on the comment board if it went past $800 million worldwide. I still have not seen that compliment by the way. Out of all the potential nominees, Toy Story 3 will be the only one to have outgrossed Inception. For as much as I love the Hurt Locker, that picture was an anomaly in winning Best Picture if looking at box office only (there were other factors as well of course). But, there is a trend towards successful pictures at the box office when it comes to the Oscars.

    3)It will be nominated for the most Oscars in the tech categories and probably win the majority or all of them.

    -Editing, cinematography, visual effects, sound, sound effects editing, art direction, and score. That is 7 nominations that Inception will most likely get…with at least 4 wins possible (editing, visual effects, sound & sound effects editing). Cinematography could go to Roger Deakins this year for True Grit (finally!!) with the other 2 awards to smaller films. But, having Inception that many times on a ballot does help in the overall push to win Best Picture.

    4)Inception has a varied and well-liked & known cast & crew.

    -Dicaprio,Page,Cotillard,Caine,Watanabe,Murphy,Berenger,Postlethwhaite,Gordon-Levitt,Hardy,Rao,and Haas. Is there more varied cast among all of the other possible nominees except for The King’s Speech? Nolan, Zimmer, Smith, Pfister, Dyas, etc. is as respected and professional crew that the industry has. In that list, you have 11 Oscar nominees and winners. This picture does not have a lack of representation when it comes to SAG or the actors branch of the Academy that Avatar or a Pixar film has had. I think that is one of the major problems which The Social Network will face because its cast is relatively young and mostly unknown when compared to a cast like King’s Speech or Inception.

    5) The Oscar baggage that other nominees have.

    -Toy Story 3: a Pixar film which the Academy will relegate to the Animation Oscar

    127 Hours: too small of a cast and the Slumdog Millionaire crew have already been honored very recently

    True Grit: Jeff Bridges & Coen Brothers too recently honored; particularly for the Coens would put them in Coppola and Wilder territory – I just don’t see it

    The Social Network: too young of a cast and too cool emotionally as a movie or as you said “Epic of intimacy… but does the heart beat loudly enough?”

    The Fighter: David O. Russell; more an actors piece

    The Kids are All Right: more an actors piece

    The Black Swan: too individual of a voice; I hate to use this word but too “edgy”

    Another Year: Mike Leigh’s films do better at BAFTA than at Oscars though I am pulling for Manville to get the Oscar because she has the best shot since Bleythn in Secrets & Lies

    Hereafter: Eastwood been awarded so much in past 6-7 years

    The King’s Speech: Inception toughest competitor; only real drawbacks are Tobe Hooper’s newness compared to Nolan in feature films and being a British film.
    The Baftas will award The King’s Speech to highest heavens, but does love of The King’s Speech carryover the Atlantic (besides the buttkissing Golden Globes) to SAG/DGA/PGA & finally Oscars like Shakespeare in Love didd or does it get some major awards like The Queen or Howard’s End but not Best Picture.
    Yes, Hooper had done acclaimed work on HBO in the last 6 years, but Nolan has been doing acclaimed work in the cinema for the last 10 years without industry recognition.

    6) Warner Bros has played this game before and won twice before in the past 7 years.

    -Having played the long game before with both Million Dollar Baby and The Departed, WB have a good blueprint to work with Inception. They are also going to let the movie speak for itself and they have the goods: a engaging movie, an attractive & well-liked cast, and a director whose work has been consistently admired but not yet awarded. So, let The Social Network or 127 Hours or True Grit strike now and burn itself out to get the nomination. Just like The Departed, Inception is the elephant in the room not moving but always still there aiming for the Best Picture award. Voters will have to come back to it just to appreciate the detail put into the story and the characters again.

    7) Oscars are an industry award or like voting for student council president.

    -What movie will be the most popular and the most substantial possible nominee to the industry this year? I think you could make the case for Inception because as Nolan said himself, he subconsciously made a filmic metaphor of the collaborative process of filmmaking. Actors are not hidden behind CGI but visual effects are not thrown out of this movie’s toolbox either. Nolan uses CGI but also the practical visual effects to convey his world. But, actors are still in the forefront of conveying his vision of a dream world. The detail of the screenplay, the wonderful & varied cinematography, precise editing between dream levels, the towering score,etc. all are there to provide as possible as complete filmic experience as you will get in mainstream cinema this year.
    Inception will appeal to many members throughout the several branches of the Academy.

    8)Christopher Nolan is due and this film may be his most ambitious to date!!!

    -Now, this reason may seem to be the weakest one of them all…but I think that there are significant points to be made from this statement. One, a case could be made that Nolan should have an Oscar already for writing Memento. Two, he is probably one of the most successful filmmakers to have made the transition from independent/low-budget filmmaking to industry/high-budget filmmaking without having dumbed down his work to please audiences. Three, has anyone ever heard anything remotely negative about Nolan’s professional behavior? I believe that the worst ever heard about Nolan was when he was a victim of David O. Russell’s headlock at a party. Almost every interview Michael Caine has done it seems that Caine is praising Nolan to high heaven (i.e. on Friday’s Morning Joe Caine compared him to freaking David Lean particularly on the opening of The Dark Knight). Nolan is the pro’s pro and the consummate professional. Four, the exclusion of the 3 top Oscar nods for The Dark Knight (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay) was embarassing to the Academy; hence, the expanded Best Picture nominee list. In fact, Tom Hanks or the Academy president at the time said the expansion of the list was due to “The Dark Knight” and Wall-E. So, it is make up time for the Academy for another challenging picture made by the same filmmaker that happens to have been the biggest live action hit of the year.

    Now, could I be wrong in these statements? Absolutely. But, are there truths in these statements that are strengths for Inception’s campaign to Oscar? Yes. What I expect & hope to happen is to see Inception get 10 nods-the 7 tech nods previously mentioned along with Original Screenplay, Director, and Picture. Hopefully, the picture will win 5 to 8 Oscars that night with Christopher Nolan getting Best Director and he and his wife getting Best Picture. (I don’t think Screenplay because I think that will go to a smaller film and I will acknowledge that the film is better directed than written-though the Screenplay deserves to be nominated as one of the 5 best). The best case scenario for nominations/possible wins would be 12 nominations for Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Supp. Actress (Cotillard), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound & Sound Effects Editing. If it gets the acting nods and screenplay nods, Inception wins Best Picture hands down. Hell, the Globes might take their heads out of their asses and toss Nolan a nod his way but I doubt it.

    I could be wrong and have egg on my face as Inception be totally shut out. And, it is presumptuous of me to predict the film’s Oscar chances. I will be right here if Inception loses best picture or does not get nominated and say I was wrong. What ticks me off as a reader is when the so called experts don’t admit when they are wrong. One of things that I always about Roger Ebert is that time he went back and stated he was wrong about the quality of Unforgiven. He admitted his error in judgement on the 1992 year end Siskel & Ebert special and placed Unforgiven on his Best of 1992 list. He got some shit from Gene about it, but that action to self-reflect and correct endeared me as a reader to Mr. Ebert.

    As a reader of your site and blog, I sometimes get the impression that Dave you are coming from Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments with the only truth about movie industry land. All others (Finke, Wells, Goldstein, etc.) are heretics and you are the one true believer. Or as the article about Hollywood bloggers that came out a few years ago said that your nickname was the “Rabbi”. Or as Jeff Wells has said about you that you have seen at all, know it all, and not surprised about anything. I guess that I wish that not only you but everyone who offers up their opinion professionally keep in my mind William Goldman’s quote “Nobody knows anything” (including William Goldman).

    I guess I am tired of innuedo/hope/belief/guesses passed off as informed opinion without any sense of evidence. You could say that I am doing the same thing with this screed but I tried to lay out the foundations behind my reasoning. As Reagan said to Gorbachev, “Trust but verify.” I just felt prompted to write about a film that has accomplished a lot in what all of us filmgoers hope to see when we plunk down our money. Just because it is a mainstream, commercial film should not be reason enough to demerit it. Or to offhandedly put down its chances by saying “Yeah… zero chance to win, but it is almost a lock for a nod”. Inception deserves better analysis than that pithy statement.

  8. thespirithunter says:

    I nominate djiggs for Post of the Year

  9. Greg says:

    Inception had an iffy screenplay, uninspired acting, and got mixed reviews. Astounding special effects, yes, but that adds up to another Avatar, not a Best Picture. It doesn’t deserve the main awards over a film that has a coherent story to tell, like “The King’s Speech” or “True Grit.”

  10. Rman says:

    Based on all the movie reviews I have read this year, “The Social Network” has received the best reviews so far in 2010. And I think this will be the movie to beat come awards season this year. And I think the reason why “The Hurt Locker” won last year was because of its near-unanimous choice by the critics as their best film. It would seem that “The Social Network” will duplicate that achievement this year. “Inception” was a good original work by Nolan but the execution was not as good as the material. It may be included on the 10 Best Picture Oscar list, but I think it will never win the top award.

  11. GOebel Craig Stevens)PREZZ( says:

    As you are ALL-IN-THE-SooCalled……KNOW ! This is going too be short&WRITE**sweet**. We are SuperStar’s, all of you. No thank,s to the realey-BIG-Paul Mc…GenCUN. Cam-rolling and BigBrother—-SEE.___Any ?

  12. CineRam says:

    Fantastic post by djiggs. He made many excellent points. For myself, having seen Inception three times now I have noticed numerous flaws in the screenplay’s internal logic. Nevertheless it is a unique concept and an exhilarating viewing experience, a story with so many obstacles thrown at the characters, who are then forced to come up with ingenious solutions to them almost immediately–and it’s entirely the viewer’s responsibility to keep up. There is no question that Christopher Nolan deserves nominations for both directing and Best Picture. As for winning, I feel he had a much bigger challenge than David Fincher, so he deserves the award. But I’d give Best Picture to Toy Story 3, which has no equal. TS3 won’t win because it is both animated and a second sequel, and if that holds true, Best Picture must go to Inception.

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