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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Strategy Session: Getting Out Of The Way

The two titles that seem to be mortal locks for Best Picture nominations at this point are Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood and The Irishman.

Critics are on board. The Tarantino was a significant commercial hit and The Scorsese has pushed aside commerciality as a consideration by going to Netflix without a traditional theatrical window.

But playing from ahead can be more difficult than playing from behind, especially if your goal is a win and not just a participation trophy (aka, a bunch of nominations with few or no wins).

Obviously, once nominated, everyone wants to win, no matter how unlikely. But… sanity tends to roll up eventually.

This season, both of these front-running movies have an undercurrent t0 contend with… male privilege. I am not a believer that a filmmaker is obliged to make their films about other genders or races or political perspectives to be legitimate. And in both cases, these are period films with very specific perspectives.

In The Irishman, the most significant female character is The Daughter, who is nearly silent, and represents her father’s shame. It’s not a spoiler to say that the perspective of the film is the Irishman’s, so the sadness he feels about his daughter’s view of him doesn’t require words.

In Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, the Sharon Tate character’s relative silence is a strength. It’s an idealized view of Tate and some say that she is narrowed into being an object. But that is more a political analysis than a cinematic one. Her character is an ideal, and even in her private moments, she represents an image of a perceived moment of perfection in one’s life (albeit fake), where nothing can go wrong. Margot Robbie gives a great performance as the embodiment of sunshine, even while pregnant, as she lives this moment in an actor’s life, reflected in DiCaprio’s character feeling he is entering a eclipse.

Regardless, these issues need to be addressed in order to deflect ongoing negativity in the media and – ta-da!!! – Twitter.

Here is where the films diverge. Even though no one will acknowledge it – and once your film is nominated, anything seems possible – Once Upon is seen by most people as a participation trophy kind of movie. Lots of nominations. Hard to imagine fewer than seven or eight (Pitt, DiCaprio, Director, Screenplay, Production Design, Costume, two Sound, maybe Robbie). But there are only three slots where it has a real shot at winning. Supporting Actor for Brad Pitt, Original Screenplay and Production Design. I think Leo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career. But he took one home recently and I lean towards a built-up love of Joaquin Phoenix or the newcomer award for Jonathan Pryce.

But the point is that Sony and consultant Strategy need to avoid missteps more than anything else at this point. Critics groups will help where they will. Globes, too. Sony is re-releasing the film with extra footage, which will help shore up those bases and get many to take another look at a film, which is almost a piece of nostalgia now, the angry oppositions long forgotten (all the way back in July). The movie was the first established serious contender this year and it’s not going anywhere.

The Irishman is trickier. It goes into a handful of theaters for its “theatrical run” this week. So everyone will see it. And if you are in New York, you will have the opportunity to see it in a special venue on Broadway. Netflix will have the butterfly net out to field any grumbles as the film screens more widely. Here we go.

There are already stories circulated about why the daughter is silent and how often Scorsese has made films with women being significant characters and even a lead once or twice (45 and 26 years ago). And new stories and reviews by critics should bolster the film.

It’s in. That isn’t the challenge. Netflix doesn’t want another participation award. They want the big win. And that is a different challenge.

What is hard for Netflix is that we are already pretty late in a short season and while narratives are being set for movies, it is still tough to get a read on what the narrative for the season will be.

Every season, writers get aroused by the idea of lifetime achievement wins, but recent history suggests that this is no longer a realistic selling point. Critics may wet themselves talking about how The Irishman wraps up Scorsese’s legacy of “goodfella” movies. And the film is loaded with history.

But there is a legitimate chance that the story will go in some other direction. Realistically, no one knows how the movie will play with real people yet. Sample is just too small and too selected. But it is fair to figure that there is some hardcore support for this as the film of the year. And it is fair to expect that there will be some “meh” response, driven by the length, the CG de-aging, and the lack of action that many expect from Scorsese gangster movies.

But what will be the response in a couple weeks… after another 5,000 people see it? Will the love remain as intense overall?

And Netflix — like everyone else — has to be very careful not to read the room when superstar talent is about to come out of the curtain as the last credit rolls. Most people are either likely to be overly kind or overly unkind at those screenings. Just the way it.

Irishman will get plenty of noms from the Globes, the BFCA, and probably the two top critics groups. But that really doesn’t mean anything. That is a given. An achievement. But a given.

The trick to having a real chance to win is to read the energy of the next six weeks and then to shift the energy of your campaign, even before Oscar nominations in that direction.

In this case, what is the weakest part of The Irishman for voters, what it the zeitgeist of November and December, and how does Netflix convince voters that the weak thing is a strength and that Irishman speaks to what their heart is leaning into at the end of this year?

Also, in this case, they are going to have to decide whether it is Pesci or Pacino. Both have a good chance of being nominated. But only one can win and if Netflix doesn’t commit, neither will win.

There is also another sticky problem for Netflix… people are less excited about De Niro than about his co-stars. And the streamer really wants Adam Driver for Best Actor and will end up with Jonathan Pryce taking another slot if he continues to work his ass off. Are actors going to mark the spot for three Netflix Best Actors while Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Antonio Banderas and Tom “Hard Working” Hanks fight for the last two slots (not even getting to Eddie Murphy, Ian McKellan, the kid in Jojo Rabbit, and dare I say it, Paul Walter Hauser)?

Getting De Niro is a statement nomination for this film. It could get 11 noms and if it doesn’t score De Niro, that could be sold in the media as ambivalence.

But here is the other thing… and it is true for both of these films.

You can’t get caught being smug or trying to hard when you are in this slot. Sometimes a great idea should just allowed to slip away, undone.

I would put the massive outdoor display they created for the Irishman premiere last week in that category. So wonderful on a conceptual level. But what does it say to the potential voters… who are all that really matter at this point? It says, “We don’t care about money.” It doesn’t capture the heart of this movie. It says to New Yorkers that Angelenos think they can recreate New York with brightly painted false fronts.

And what is it supposed to say to audiences? This is not a FUN movie. It’s not gimmicky. It’s not a fun time on the red carpet. But that display says the opposite.

Truth is, the only time I think a red carpet display that is A TON OF FUN is appropriate is when the movie is an amusement park ride or for kids.

Do I think this will matter? No. Neither way. No one is voting for a movie because you recreated Umberto’s on Hollywood Boulevard. And no one is trashing the film for it either.

But it is another little reminder that Netflix is different. And no one is voting for that either. I don’t think a win is impossible because it is Netflix. But I also don’t think there is a single vote – outside of Netflix employees – that will be given any movie because it comes from Netflix and they do things different.

It is a weird ask to chase something that is all about tradition (for those who see it that way… certainly most Academy members) and to keep saying, “We don’t honor your traditions.”

Like I said in the title…. Get out of the way.

The Irishman is a more likely Best Picture winner than Roma ever was. But part of the charm of Roma is that it was so iconoclastic. That is not the hook for The Irishman. It is about the end of an era of a kind of life. It is made for older members of The Academy, not the freshly invited young ones. It is made by a filmmaker who has liquid international celluloid running through his blood. Tradition.

The hard part is that when you think about it, the film is asking us to have sympathy for the devil. And that may be hard to overcome, when all is said and done.

And getting back to Once Upon, that film also has a self-indulgent fop and a stone-cold killer as its leads.

But they are clearly the two most deeply embraced films of this season so far, with only 1917 really left in the barrel. (I don’t know anyone who thinks Richard Jewell is going to be a late-game-changing Million Dollar Baby kind of movie, although it could get nods.)

They need to be managed, left loose to keep being loved, and pushed hard all at the same time. And that is the great challenge of keeping your frontrunner front running.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon