Oscar race rules changing

Studios altering strategies, release patterns

The next few weeks are crucial — not just for the box office, but for the awards season.

“Usually by this time, you can start betting on one or two movies for a best picture nomination,” says one strategist. “But not this year.”

Awards campaigns are always stressful, but the tension may have hit an all-time high — because the uncertainty of this season started last season.

Strategists were hit by the double whammy of “Dreamgirls” and “The Departed.” The former had six months of Internet buzz as the front-runner for best picture and won a Golden Globe, but failed to land an Oscar nomination; even after the latter opened, Warner Bros. execs insisted that “Departed” was not a best picture contender. It ended up winning the top prize.

With the rules being broken, strategists knew they had to do things differently, so this year they’re making some changes:

  • They’re betting more on crowd-pleasers. “3:10 to Yuma,” “Juno” and “Hairspray” are getting campaigns, partly encouraged by the fall crop of “serious” films that failed to ignite.

  • Some big-studio films are adopting a “Departed”-like slow timing. The myth is that Warner Bros. never campaigned for “Departed.” It did — but the crusading started in December, even though it opened in early October. This year a lot of key films have not been widely seen, including “Sweeney Todd,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Great Debaters” and “I Am Legend.” So for now, it’s all quiet on the western front, but expect campaigns for a lot of films to kick into high gear in December.

  • The specialty divisions have started screenings earlier than ever, trying to build buzz before the year-end onslaught. Miramax began screening “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in September, though it bows in December. Paramount Vantage’s “The Kite Runner” had its official Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences screening unusually early: November, a month before its theatrical bow.

  • DVDs are going out earlier as well. Fox Searchlight sent “The Namesake,” “Once” and “Waitress” to awards voters Sept. 4, beating the previous record-holder for an early mailing (Sony Pictures Classics’ “Junebug”) by nearly a month. Oscar voters got “Things We Lost in the Fire” on Oct. 19, the day it bowed on the bigscreen; Paramount Vantage’s “Margot at the Wedding” arrived Nov. 15, the day before its U.S. bow.

  • They’re tubthumping films that are hard to find. Studios like to open awards hopefuls in the fall and keep them playing on the bigscreen, particularly in Los Angeles and New York, during the November to December campaigns. But many of the fall openers disappeared after a few weeks, meaning studios are running campaigns for films in limbo: They have exited theaters but the DVDs haven’t yet arrived.

As one exec says, “Voters are seeing the big stuff at theaters, but they’re waiting for the DVDs to watch all the depressing movies.”

Of course, Oscar is the holy grail of awards season, with the kudocast providing the climax to the endless months of campaigning. But the season includes such other events as the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, the AFI salute and, crucially, the Golden Globes, and the strategists this year have been even more aggressive in wooing the 82 voting members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. who decide on the Globes.

The earlier campaigns have been a long time coming: It’s been four years since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved the Oscarcast a month earlier, to late February, which set off a chain reaction making every other awards show earlier as well.

This is the first year that Hollywood has acknowledged the significance of that shift — and its effect on awards outcome.

When the Oscarcast was in late March, December launches had a distinct advantage. For example, the five best picture contenders for 2002 all opened in the second half of December.

Subsequently, with Oscar ballots being mailed out in late December, only one or two December bows each year have made the list of best pic nominees.

Studios continue, of course, to open films at the end of the year. But most of the late-year entries are preceded by weeks of screenings for the guilds, the press, critics and various voting orgs, all designed to ensure that voters see a film before they cast their ballots.

Several of these late-year entries — “Atonement,” “The Bucket List,” “Persepolis,” “Starting Out in the Evening” — have been seen by journalists, but the key will be when they are viewed by voters of other kudosfests.

DVDs, which have already gained prominence with the earlier kudocasts, should play an even bigger role this year, which already is working to the advantage of such pics as “Away From Her,” “A Mighty Heart” and “Zodiac,” all of which have been released on DVD.

People in Hollywood are not yet in the holiday spirit and most are not in the awards spirit either. They’re fretting about the writers strike, the housing market, Iraq, global warming –and the fall box office.

“American Gangster” had a boffo bow and “Michael Clayton” is sustaining well. But in general, the strategists have been thrown another monkey wrench as fall’s “prestige” films are not following the awards pattern.

Usually in the fourth quarter, studios and indies open up a slew of pics; a handful rise above the crowd and become front-runners for Oscar slots, such as last year’s “The Queen” and “Babel.”

This year, a lot of the fall films have found some supporters but none has emerged as a sure bet, including “Lust, Caution,” “The Assassination of Jesse James,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Eastern Promises,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “Into the Wild,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Things We Lost in the Fire,” et al.

Many of these films are dark, violent and political and have underperformed at the box office. Many bloggers and reporters for the mainstream media have declared that the low B.O. has killed their chances, but, in fact, there is often a huge gap between what the public pays to watch and what kudos voters see. “The Last King of Scotland,” “Monster,” “Capote” and “Boys Don’t Cry” didn’t exactly break B.O. records and they all won Oscars.

Unlike last year’s international entries in multiple races (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Children of Men,” “Babel”), this year’s roster has a decidedly American accent. Many are genre pics: urban dramas, westerns (“3:10 to Yuma,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Jesse James”), and political pics (“Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs”).

It is, as always, a time of uncertainty. But while “Dreamgirls” and “Departed” set the tone, every awards season has its quirks and those may not necessarily be indicators.

“The Departed” had created anticipation due to its marquee names. When it opened in October 2006, nobody proclaimed it a front-runner for awards. The same is true of “Gladiator” and “Crash” and a lot of other winners.

But Warner Bros.’ slowness in touting “Departed” wasn’t a strategy. The studio mavens honestly thought it was a genre pic. Director Martin Scorsese especially was wary of another kudos-season buildup, after his experiences with “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” where he was in essence the Oscar dreamgirl: Touted as a favorite, but going home empty-handed.

And the “Dreamgirls” trauma was not of the studio’s making.

The DreamWorks musical got eight Oscar noms, but not for picture, director or screenplay. It is arguably the first victim of Internet handicapping: Six months before anyone saw the completed film, it was showered with rapturous buzz by bloggers who had only seen 20 minutes of footage. No film could have lived up to that hoopla.

Kudos voters are like diners at a buffet: They like to look at everything that’s being offered before they make their decision. So the big irony this year is that the kudos season started earlier than ever, has entailed more thought and fretting than any other — and there is less clarity than any previous year.

Which is why the awards race is always fun.

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