Major critics resent 'Blood's' Fantastic debut

When a “surprise screening” of Paramount Vantage’s “There Will Be Blood” closed out Harry Knowles’ Fantastic Film Fest in Austin Sept. 27, the review community was caught off-guard. A Paul Thomas Anderson period epic wooing fanboys at a sci-fi/fantasy fest?

Par Vantage reps lamely explained that the filmmaker opted for Austin because the pic wasn’t ready for the main festivals — odd, considering that Toronto ended only two weeks before the Knowles event.

The move offended many critics who resented online fanboys being quoted. But Vantage found “Blood” was the center of attention on film websites that week, and dodged the glut of Toronto and Venice, where one premiere bleeds into another.

In the ever-more complicated chess game known as awards season, the race is getting off to an earlier-than-ever start. With a record number of specialty titles being released this fall and winter, marketing and publicity teams are redrawing the calendar to break through the clutter.

Fox Searchlight stunned many when the specialty arm delivered DVD screeners of “Once,” “Waitress” and “The Namesake” the day after Labor Day. (A year ago, awards pundits thought October was early for screeners.)

Screening rooms in L.A. and Gotham are running at capacity, far earlier than usual.

Focus Features has already begun screening its awards contenders for voting groups. “Atonement,” for example, doesn’t bow until Dec. 7 but begins kudos screenings Nov. 3.

Similarly, parent company Universal began screening Ridley Scott’s Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe starrer “American Gangster” for “opinion-makers” in Hollywood in mid-September. The pic doesn’t bow until Nov. 2.

DreamWorks in August held some screenings of its film “The Kite Runner,” which Paramount Vantage will release in December.

This eagerness by studios to showcase their wares is a delayed reaction to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ decision three years ago to move the Oscars up a month, to late February.

When the awards were in late March, screenings and DVD mailings kicked into high gear after Thanksgiving.

The screenings and mailers target various groups; the Focus ads announcing the division’s upcoming screenings list 22 voting orgs that are invited, including the Academy, guilds and critics groups.

Focus’ screenings began Oct. 6 in New York with “Eastern Promises” and “Lust, Caution.”

“You have to have the goods. If you have the goods, you need to give people every opportunity to see the film,” says a Focus exec.

A Paramount exec agrees: “You have to screen early, and wherever and whenever you can.”

And the early-screening tactic is not just for “prestige” films. Commercial pics like “Knocked Up” also enjoyed early screenings, to get the buzz going.

The glut is a boon to the dozen screening rooms in L.A. and the handful in other sites, including Gotham, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Chicago and London.

“We’re having to say no to people almost every day. It’s a bummer,” says Audis Husar at the Wilshire Screening Room in Beverly Hills. Wilshire has two screening spaces; one has 45 seats, the other 420.

The theater operations department at AMPAS, which runs several screening rooms, says it is always busy at this time of year, but that this fall seems especially so.

“Wow, this is the first year that so much stuff has screened so early. It actually began in August,” says an awards consultant.”

With the abundance of films this year, it takes extra effort to make sure voters see the films. The December holidays and early deadlines for ballots mean that many kudos voters cannot be expected to attend a lot of year-end screenings. For pics opening in November and December, building buzz becomes key.

Hence, the September launch of “There Will Be Blood.”

Vantage opens the pic Dec. 26. Critics were eager to see the film at Venice and Toronto, but Anderson and Vantage politely declined, saying it wouldn’t be ready. The helmer did take a 20-minute clip to Telluride, which further piqued interest.

What no one knew was that Anderson had told his chum Knowles the film would be ready in time for Fantastic Fest, which ran Sept. 20-27. Anderson informed Vantage about a week before going to Austin of his plan, according to Knowles. It stayed under the radar, although enough rumors started circulating before the screening that reviewers already attending the fest made sure to remain on hand for the closing-night film. Seven reviews were generated from the screening, nearly all glowing.

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