MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

20W2O: 16 Weeks To Go – This Year’s Strategy

Every Oscar season has a lesson… or two.

For the last two years (The Artist and The King’s Speech), it’s been “Let the movie do the work… don’t be a stranger, but don’t get in the way of success.”

At least, that is the image being projected. The talent was subjected to months of work, meant to feel casual to voters. And charm was required for all of those months.

Both movies were sensations at Toronto. Both films were screened generously. Both films had its stars working the room for months.

Silver Linings Playbook and Argo were the two closest thing to Toronto sensations this year. Argo was released a few weeks after TIFF and Silver Linings has been lightly screened, hoping to have a big box office run. Not coincidentally, they are two of the current frontrunners.

This year has seen an expanded role in the award season for the New York Film Festival, though there is no real history of success in launching from there. New leadership has pushed for more exclusive premieres, so Fox’s Life of Pi, Paramount’s Flight and a not-so-sneaky world premiere of Lincoln set sail there this year. All three have strong admirers as well as detractors. But a big win or two for any of them would help make the argument for NYFF as a new fall launchpad.

There are only three “late” entries this season” Universal’s Les Miserables, Sony’s Zero Dark Thirty, and The Weinstein Company’s Django Unchained. Late, in the new, shorter Phase One, a nasty Academy curve ball thrown at distributors and publicists for no apparent reason, means December 3 or 4. That’s Django. But the other two films are both scheduled to be shown to the voters via guilds as well as the media in the week after Thanksgiving.

One film that chose to hold itself virgin until showing it to a large group, relatively late in the season, was Fox Searchlight’s Hitchcock, which turns out to be a masterful, intimate piece about the life of an aging superstar director… an icon whose interest in reaching for more is still subject to extreme doubt by the business community of Hollywood. Not unlike Lincoln, I don’t think the audience expected the limited scale of the film… which demands a period of adjustment. They have four weeks.

Even with both of the last two Best Picture winners showing themselves to North America at Toronto, I felt a sense of trepidation from the distributors in heading into the melange there this year. Because for each of those Oscar winners, there were at least a half dozen films that didn’t rise to the top up north, and spent the rest of the season trying to regain momentum.

Toronto was also The Place to launch, and often secure, Oscar wins for actors, male & female. But last season, only 7 of the 20 acting nominees were at Toronto. Almost as many were in movies that were in release before Toronto.

But one big thing that has changed dramatically in the last 5 years or so was the marketing edge for all of these potential contenders. The launches of these films, even the earlier releases, are tending to drive the awards potential, and not, as was often the case, the other way around. You would never think that The King’s Speech or Black Swan or The Artist got their theatrical releases as late as they actually did, because the machinery started in Toronto and never let up. And only The Artist failed to pay clear financial dividends in the US, though $45m domestic for a silent film led by U.S. unknowns is hard to complain about.

When The Hurt Locker won three years ago with a relatively late push in December, studios responded by trying to push their Oscar spending more heavily into December. October releases became the vogue after The Departed won and Babel & The Queen were three of the then-five nominees. Crash inspired more efforts to use the SAG Strategy, pushing the actors to drive Best Picture nominations. The last two winners coming out of Toronto, domestically, is in the conscious thinking of strategists, but the problem for pictures that don’t become The Movie, is stringing along those films for extra months at great expense, sending a number of filmmakers away from the Festival Strategy.

So what is This Year’s Strategy?

I don’t see one.

Argo is being driven by its successful October release and great notices, from festivals and in the mainstream.

Silver Linings Playbook has been laying in wait a bit and will have to prove its non-festival power in the next few weeks.

Zero Dark Thirty is relying on the heavy-hitting recent history of its filmmakers and star, but hoping that awards will propel the box office after an exclusive opening in December.

Les Miserables is star-packed and, it hopes, the movie that millions of ticket buyers in theaters across the globe have been waiting for… but it is jumping into the season without a ton of support from its famous cast and with real questions about how well a Broadway near-opera will play with an Academy that hasn’t embraced a show like this in over 40 years.

Life of Pi has been on the fest circuit since New York, the potential of the box office to be defined next weekend.

Is there a No Strategy Strategy in play? I don’t think so. I think that budget cutbacks and the reality that most talent in a position to be nominated is not able to make themselves as available as some (read: Harvey Weinstein) would have them has changed the game. More and more talent doesn’t want to be seen asking for awards… and often pay the price of not winning awards.

The consultants who drive these campaigns have been the same people for quite a number of years now. Each has their own style. They are all quite smart about the work. And there hasn’t been a legitimately game-changing player in roughly a decade. And losses, like the late great Ronnie Chasen, have changed the methods used in certain categories profoundly.

In the end, the movies really do matter. It’s not just a chess match. But right now, there are a lot of moves being made, still hoping, still keeping hope alive. And no one clear strategy in play. Even Harvey Weinstein is still with his top show pony, Jennifer Lawrence, working in the next Hunger Games movie and barely available, while her other half in Silver Linings, Bradley Cooper, is working on Hangover 3, and is a willing participant, but not going to be turned into an awards chaser by anyone… not even Harvey.

Trends are set by the winners each year… but no one can trend out having The Movie. That’s fate and good fortune, not strategy. Of course, without the strategy, The Movie could be utterly lost. And the parade goes on…

4 Responses to “20W2O: 16 Weeks To Go – This Year’s Strategy”

  1. Michael says:

    Just a quick point, both “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech” “launched” at Telluride as did “Argo” this year.

  2. Stephen Holt says:

    I think “Hitchcock” could become a Best Picture nominee as well as Sir Anthony as Sir Alfred and Dame Helen Mirren, who was already in the Top Five of The Gurus o’ Gold, so I’m guessing she’s IN.

    And if only Magnolia would wake up and campaign OR SOMEthing for the brilliant Ann Dowd, whose been placed in Supporting for her Demian Bechir/D.Jenkins star-like turn in “Compliance” Scott Feinberg was the only one of the Gurus who listed her, so she ended up as a One Vote Wonder.

    Now, this morning at THR, he’s upgraded her to “Major Threat”! The Supp. Actress category is soooo open, Dowd, if the Voters see “Compliance” would be a shoo-in.

    But it hasn’t even had an Academy screening yet! Magnolia, wake up! You’ve got a possible nominee on your hands!

  3. chris says:

    Hmmm, I wonder if I’m in the minority. Totally surprised by the love for “Hitchcock,” which I don’t like much (other than D’Arcy and Johansson).

  4. Marjorie Harris says:

    Don’t forget Spielberg’s Lincoln. By the way there’s a tremendous symposium at cityarts.info featuring Armond White’s amazing “negative” or “qualified” review of Lincoln. Everyone should read it.

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“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima