| February 21, 2020
Christmas Day has come and gone and some distributors are happily sleeping, their bellies filled with the comfort of their films’ position. Others are — or should be — getting twitchy.
The most comfy of all should be Netflix, for whom absolutely nothing has changed since this holiday window began last Friday the 20th. This is the power (and sometimes weakness) of releasing movies designed to live in a different paradigm than the other distributors competing for Oscar. They lean only on awards marketing and the movies themselves to stake out their position on the field. There is only the call to voters… no response… at least until nominations morning.
The process of The Great Settling still happens for Netflix. But the expectations that are stirring the pot are those of the movies themselves, the marketing, and little else.
On the other hand, Lionsgate is on both sides of the double edged sword this week. Bombshell, which is wildly undervalued, is not being highly valued or seen by the public. This is very dangerous for this film. There was a scent of “only the actors” around it from the day it first screened. But an energized audience could have changed that. The film should be around the $20 million mark when the people go back to work next week, which is not inherently disqualifying.
But none of this is about reality. It is about perception. And the message around Bombshell after a few weeks is “meh.” Mixed feelings amongst voters. Mixed feelings amongst ticket buyers, not so much after seeing the film, but clearly, when deciding what movie to see.
Since first seeing it, the key to the movie seems not to be the three women in the leads, each of whom gives a remarkable performance, but John Lithgow’s Roger Ailes, whose complex villainy appears, on the surface, to be pushing against the idea of the film as a #MeToo clarifier. But he is at the center of what is best about the film. The complexity and the near-banality of how power, particularly male power, has foisted itself and abused women in the work force. And indeed, the fight among all women and even among the victims themselves to unite and fight this abuse.
I should write a piece about how #MeToo has been let down by this industry over and over since the Harvey Revelations came to light. Even the best intentioned are still trying to figure this out. The film Bombshell delivers as well as anything has in this regard. But I don’t think the pitch —and you may have read about my love of the trailer choice, which I still love — found the tone that was needed to make this movie feel more important to audiences. No one (who isn’t a film critic) wants a lecture at the movies. And no one wants to trivialize the issue here. But in many ways, the film is a whodunit where you know who did it… but its about the journey. The marketing never quite went there, so you are asking people to embrace the film based on the three actresses and the proximity to Fox News. Clearly, not enough. A very hard get. I’m not sure what, if any, studio would have done better. But at this moment, it’s feeling not as effective as needed.
On the other side of the sword, Knives Out has positioned itself as a potential surprise Best Picture nominee. This is a possibility that I discounted since seeing and loving the film at TIFF in September. Genre is wrong. Cast is wrong (aka, unlikely to single out a nominee). The film has a Crash-like cast of well-liked actors, but is a true ensemble piece, which makes it challenging.
But here’s the thing… people really like the film. A lot of people really like the film. And in analyzing The Academy, there is a tendency to forget how much the 9000+ voters tend to be more like the masses than we expect. I am not saying Knives Out is anything close to a lock. But we are in a season of mixed feelings, so a film that everyone seems to agree on becomes a lot more empowered than might have been expected. Plus, the film is the front line on stories about “the kind of movies studios don’t make anymore” getting made and finding a big audience (should be around $115 million by the end of the holiday, plus more than $100 million more from the rest of the world).
This has been a season of terrific movies… but not a season of fun movies. Knives Out has the potential that pure pleasure brings.
This is also an advantage for Sony with both their awards films. Little Women had a big first-screening push, then some pushback, and now we are seeing how the wide expanse feels about it. My experience is that, especially for women, that feeling is joyous. (As a result, it may get to $35 million domestic — in eight total days in release — before the holiday is over.)
Likewise, as violent as the third act of Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood gets, Quentin Tarantino wrote an unusual two-hander about two sides of the coin of fame (turns out it has about twenty sides) and mixed in a shit-ton of nostalgia for boomers (especially Hollywood boomers) and as always, great and unexpected supporting performances all over the place.
In the controversy about Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate in this film, I come down squarely on QT’s side. With some space, I now see the film as a story about the two fictional men, with Sharon Tate as the shiny object that drives men mad that was in that briefcase in Pulp Fiction. I know that saying that the character is an object in the film seems anti-feminist. But I simply disagree, because she is not objectified as a woman so much, as she is an ideal that is lingered on throughout the film by DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton that he once embodied and no longer does. The flipside of that ideal is the women of Manson, who have given their power to a different kind of false idol and pay for it with their lives (in this film). If there is an argument for sexism in the film, it is about the lack of a woman in the middle ground. The women in the film other than Sharon or Manson Girls are either precocious children, bimbos or ballbusters. (What I would give for a Tarantino script on The Mamas & The Papas.)
So what of Ford v Ferarri, which will is over $100 million domestic and should pass $200 million worldwide this weekend. Will it make the cut? Is there anything that DisneyFox can do about it?
Here’s the thing… no idea. This is the film’s seventh weekend in theaters and it is now sliding towards its box office end, short of an Oscar nomination boost. The major critics groups didn’t help. So there has been no spark in a while. Just a strong, well-liked quality movie. It isn’t a natural underdog, filled with surprises, like Knives Out. There are so many movies about men that there is not constituency for men, as may drive support for a film like Little Women. This could well be the most well-liked and successful film left out of the Best Picture race this year.
Warner Bros. shoved Just Mercy into the awards race, originally having dated it in 2020. Then they left it to die with just four screens through the nomination period. And the signal there is that the film is not going to be as popular as Harriet, which is also a walking dead Best Picture title, in spite of strong box office. Harriet did $18 million in its first eight days. With Christmas and holiday week, a comparably strong 8-day wide launch for Just Mercy would be about $25 million. In all frankness, if Warners didn’t believe that this film could do that kind of business, this whole early release is just a Hail Mary to get Jamie Foxx a nod in a mostly colorless season.
Universal is also doing a qualifier for 1917 and going wide January 10. And it is in a very different position than Just Mercy. It is, by its nature, a higher-ceiling movie commercially. It’s a thriller. It’s a tear-jerker. It’s an epic. The management of this film is being asserted from a position of strength, not from an effort to sneak into the race at the bottom end of the Best Picture group. Though there is a negative thought to be had in this case too… had Universal launched wide (against its own Cats), soft numbers could have damaged it in the awards race in a real way. They will open 1917 wide before Oscar nominations, but those nominations will, they hope, propel 1917 to bigger numbers through January and into February. Sam Mendes doesn’t have the rep of a Spielberg or Scorsese or Eastwood. But this is a big-balls old-school Oscar pattern release. The goal is to be peaking at the box office when Oscar voters vote, not maxing out and starting its theatrical descent. We’ll see how that plays as it widens.
It is odd to think that Jojo Rabbit has been in release for almost 2.5 months already. Yes, I live in a showbiz bubble. So Searchlight didn’t have a lot at stake in this holiday window. I am honestly shocked by how many Academy members I hear from who have not seen the film. They have the DVD. The film has been offered to them in theaters over and over. The film grossed over $20 million, which is about right for what it is. But this may be a case where critics did manage to slow a film down enough to mortally wound it. (Unique to TIFF, where is won the Audience Award, is that audiences bought tickets and went to see the film before a group of critics lined up to throw allegations of too-light-on-Nazis at the film… and those audiences clearly disagreed with those critics.) I still think that there is enough love amongst those who have seen the film to get it nominated. And once nominated, it becomes dangerous, because everyone who hasn’t stuck the disc in the machine will stick it in the machine. Some will hate it. Many will love it. And the Best Picture win this season feels like it is up in the air.
Parasite has managed a remarkable $21 million without being on more than 620 screens. The holiday is a non-issue for the film. Either it is or isn’t in position to strike out to win Best Picture. But Neon should not be relaxing now. If Little Women and Knives Out are both getting stronger, the double nomination is a little more challenging than it was before. Don’t trust the media to tell you that you are fine. The film is in for BP. A lot of people are talking about it winning. But so far, few Academy members I have spoken to, including those who are hearing it could win, are voting for it as their #1. So…
That leaves, aside from Netflix, Joker.
I just don’t know. There will certainly be nominations. But Best Picture… hmmm… just not convinced. The holiday obviously means nothing in this regard… except… did “the kids” insist on watching the film while their voting parents and/or grandparents were talking about Trump? Or were they watching Knives Out or Parasite or Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood or Little Women? Warners and their consulting publicists have done an amazing job of keeping the film in the conversation for the last three months. But do enough people love the film to get it a nomination? Tough. And I have appreciated the work put into the film, from Todd Phillips on down the crew list, more and more as the season has worn on and the work has been shown from many perspectives. But while Joaquin Phoenix seems undeniable for a nomination, Best Picture… hard.
And then there was Netflix.
The Irishman. Marriage Story. The Two Popes. Dolemite is My Name.
Strong films. The only significance of their theatrical releases has been the stunt of those theatrical releases. I am actually shocked that I only found one story online about The Irishman‘s run at The Belasco on Broadway after it began and that was on November 7, showing social media responses from people who loved the free stuff and atmospherics that were part of the presentation. No more stories about sold-out shows or $400 resales. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great idea or an excellent piece of (very expensive) execution. But how many people are seeing The Two Popes or Marriage Story at The Paris today? No idea. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Netflix got its publicity hit.
Oddly, with a Bowl game on the TV, the Netflix take on theatrical reminds me a bit of a great player who wants to compete at the highest level, but whose parents want him to sit out the big game because he’s already projected to go high in the NFL draft and don’t want him to take the chance of failing or getting hurt when it isn’t absolutely necessary. And indeed, we saw the Alabama QB expected to go #1 in the draft get a serious injury in garbage time in a game this year, likely costing him millions on his first NFL contract, with the long-term costs still unknown.
Still, there is another side to that argument. Yes, Netflix markets their awards films to high heaven in Los Angeles and New York and across the globe (where new Academy members are) and completely avoids the ad costs and dangers of theatrical release. But in the end, there is no avoiding the films themselves. Netflix films compete mostly on the basis of being seen on TV, as so many of the films now do. The films themselves have to deliver.
Even the difference between the habit of turning on Netflix and watching something/anything and having to stick a disc in a DVD player is an advantage in terms of voters seeing the films. The films are in your face. This also means some people will see them and not love them. But strategically, the first step in any Oscar effort is having voters see the films. And Netflix has a head start there over all the theatrically- driven titles.
So what might Team Netflix be feeling over this holiday window? A little anxiety. But they really have no reason to feel like they are leaving anything undone. They were really done last week when The Two Popes and Marriage Story arrived on the service. Mission complete. Roll over and smoke a cigarette or whatever one does these days that is considered to be a safe choice. Hollywood is pregnant… or not. Y’all are done. You gave all the power to those movies.
I don’t know if this will happen next year or not. However… if I were Warner Bros. and I had a film like Just Mercy next season, looking for the best awards opportunity, I would be seriously considering releasing the film by October 1, specifically so I could have the film move exclusively to HBO Max by November 15.
And if I was a company like Netflix and had a Dolemite Is My Name, I would skip the festivals, do a legitimate six-week theatrical window, committing to $15 million in marketing for the release, then put it on the service a month before Oscar voting.
No matter what the result of this season, both sides should seriously consider the new tools that are available to them. Netflix is stubborn and simply wrong about theatrical. If they had given Scorsese a real release this year and, sanely, demanded that he cut his film by 45 minutes, he and they would be in a much better position to win Best Picture this year, even for a film that gets 12 or 13 nominations without those choices.
The greater irony is that Netflix could be leading the market in the way they did with streaming by fully integrating the theatrical option into their model. Their stock seems unstoppable. Their stock is up to a still-crazy 329 on the Dow as of Friday, so while it’s not a suicidal 400+, they are fine. But Disney+ is just the beginning of the turf wars for streaming and Netflix is surely looking for their next iteration. A billion a year in theatrical would make an already superstar stock even bigger. (shrug)
In the new era of The Academy, with up to 10 nominees for Best Picture, we will soon see a major de-emphasize theatrical and focus on promoting their film of choice by pushing it out “early” to subscription streaming. If Disney had dated Ford v Ferarri in October, the film could be on Disney+ today. And that might have been a better strategy to get a Best Picture nomination than they have had this season.
Interesting times for Oscar and the industry.
| February 21, 2020
| February 16, 2020
| February 11, 2020
"For the first time in a while, there’s nothing but silence. My eyes are still puffy from the tearful goodbyes that punctuated a historic night, one that ended with six Oscar trophies but surprisingly no karaoke. That night was already far gone for sleep, so I mindlessly went to the beach hoping to watch the sun come up — as if the cosmic win of Parasite could make the sun rise from the west. Instead of the sun on the horizon, I watched the moon fade in and out of the grey brushstrokes left behind by the previous night’s rain. The sky started to pour on our way to the Oscars. Raindrops hit hard against the sprinter bus as we tried to contain our anxious buzz. It was a good omen. After all, Parasite is a rain movie."
| February 21, 2020
February 21, 2020
February 21, 2020
| December 13, 2019
| December 4, 2019
| December 4, 2019