Open season

Kudo front-runners hard to find in a tricky year

In a baffling year for film awards, this is an especially baffling period.

In terms of box office, 2006 had some clear winners (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”) and losers (“All the King’s Men”).

But it’s a sea of confusion when it comes to kudos. Most of the year’s major hopefuls have been screened to the media, but there’s no consensus as to which films are shoo-ins — or even likely — to get kudos attention.

In most years, there are seven or eight films vying for the five best picture Oscar slots. This year, there are double that number, and each week offers some new plot twist. The only sure bet is that when Oscar nominations come out Jan. 23, everyone will say there were no surprises, as they seem to do every year.

Among the anomalies is the “Dreamgirls”-“Departed” contrast.

Even when “The Departed” was in production, Warner Bros. consistently downplayed any awards talk — curious, considering director Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson have 33 Oscar nominations among them. (Is Scorsese gun-shy after the hoopla for his “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”? Or was it that the studio felt it was simply a zippy remake of a Hong Kong thriller, and not necessarily awards material?)

The two films point up varied challenges in the kudos season. “The Departed” is working to translate audience enthusiasm into kudos cred, while “Dreamgirls” has to deal with the burden of buzz. Paramount and DreamWorks screened 20 minutes of the film at Cannes in May. The press was enthusiastic — so enthusiastic that some media members began predicting it was an Oscar front-runner. Online and print pundits kept that enthusiasm going for months, even though no one saw a completed version until six months later. It’s hard enough to open a film, but “Dreamgirls” has the extra burden of living up to all the advance talk.

Those same studios are dealing with the Iwo Jima question. Two weeks ago, Warner Bros. confirmed it will release Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” in December, in time for awards consideration. The multimillion-dollar question is whether the film will bolster the kudos campaign of the filmmaker’s “Flags of Our Fathers” (from DreamWorks-Par), or whether the two dovetailing films will compete.

The deck has a few wild cards, such as “United 93” (widely admired by those who saw it, but needing to reach voters who are reluctant to view the film).

“Apocalypto” has its own set of challenges. But it’s tantalizing to realize that the Mel Gibson-directed film, and “Iwo Jima” are eligible for Golden Globe consideration in the foreign-language category. But, due to variance in Academy Award rules, neither can compete in Oscar’s foreign-language race.

In past years, awards pundits have predicted that comedy films would get Globes consideration, but not Oscar, since the Globes have five comedy-musical contenders as well as drama.

But this year, folks in the film biz have been so enthused about pics ranging from “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Borat,” that it’s possible laffers will end up with nominations in various orgs’ voting.

And some are betting that the DNA of this year’s race could be altered by the addition of the few films that are still largely unseen, such as “Blood Diamond,” “Children of Men,” “Factory Girl,” “The Good Shepherd,” “Miss Potter” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Before various voting groups (critics, Golden Globes, et al.) begin to weigh in, there is little clarity in the race, yet handicapping has shifted into high gear. But don’t bet too heavily on any film or trend. Because this year, pretty much everything you know about awards season is wrong.

Here are some conventional “truisms” about the kudos race, and why they don’t apply.

  • Box office is king. There’s a big difference between box office and the Hollywood screening circuit. Last year, when the noms were announced, all five best-film Oscar contenders had earned less at the B.O. than one of the docu entries (“March of the Penguins”). Films like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Monster,” “Capote” and “Hustle & Flow” didn’t set the box office on fire, but were widely seen by kudos voters and eventually won prizes. So pundits are clearly off-base when they try to form a correlation between the box office of “The Last King of Scotland,” “Running With Scissors” and “Half Nelson” and their awards chances.

  • Other voting groups are barometers. Conventional wisdom says critics and other orgs draw attention to films. But each group has its own tastes. Last year, three of the five best-pic contenders (“Capote,” “Crash” and “Munich”) did not get a film nod from the Globes and other key voting groups.

  • “Serious” films get more attention. Last year’s crop of best picture nominees tackled social issues like racism, homophobia and terrorism. While there is no shortage of issue pics this year (“Babel,” “The Good German,” “Home of the Brave,” “Little Children,” et al.), films like “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Borat,” are also being tipped as contenders. And one of the best received films all year at the Academy screenings: “Casino Royale.”

  • Awards voters have too few female roles to choose from. It’s usually the guys who get all the attention. But an abundance of strong perfs by women this year — including Annette Bening in “Running With Scissors,” Penelope Cruz in “Volver,” Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal,” Gong Li in “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” Helen Mirren in “The Queen,” Meryl Streep in “Prada,” Kate Winslet in “Little Children,” Renee Zellweger in “Miss Potter,” Cate Blanchett in “The Good German,” Naomi Watts in “The Painted Veil” — are making the actress category the race to watch.

  • Voters tend to forget films that opened earlier in the year. The 2005 best pic winner, “Crash,” and 2001’s “Gladiator” both opened in May. Neither film was widely hailed at the time as the one to beat for the top Oscar; but despite the late-year glut of “prestige” films in those years, voters maintained their affection for the earlier films. Same could happen this year, with enthusiasm high for early openers like “United 93” (April) and summer releases “Sunshine” and “World Trade Center.”

  • An awards contender needs to build buzz far in advance. Some studios position pics as contenders before any footage is shot. And, thanks to an explosion of blogs and print supplements dedicated to kudos, handicapping the Oscars is becoming a year-round business. But “frontrunners” often are burdened by those high expectations. In contrast, many of the pics now picking up favorable mentions, such as “Volver” and “The Queen,” flew under the kudos radar before they opened, to their advantage.

  • Awards season is in full swing. The five-month kudos season can be divided into two distinct parts: the October-through-December guessing game, followed by the buildup to the Academy Awards on Feb. 25. Until critics and other voting orgs begin to weigh in next month, it’s open season when nobody knows anything. And the season takes a completely different tone once other groups have had their say — and when the Oscar noms are announced.

So contenders should enjoy this half of the season. Because now, everybody is a possible contender.

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