'Slumdog' prevailed while others bit the dust

Neither “Valkyrie” nor “Seven Pounds” won any Oscar love this year, but the two movies — both featuring A-list leading men, both sporting some measure of awards pedigree and both opening within a week of each other in December — offer a glimpse of just how tricky it is to manage the buzz of Oscar expectations.

How do studios and the awards consultants on their payrolls know when to press on with an awards campaign and when to cut their losses? It’s a question faced every Oscar season, and the answers vary from film to film.

Sony Pictures began championing “Seven Pounds” weeks before it was released, taking out ads trumpeting Will Smith’s lead performance and reminding viewers that it came from the same team that made “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

“Valkyrie,” meanwhile, ran from the idea that it was Oscar bait, with publicists at MGM going on record saying the Tom Cruise war movie was most definitely not an awards candidate.

The result? Operating outside Oscar hysteria, “Valkyrie” was perceived as a thriller that (mostly) delivered the goods. In contrast, critics pounced on “Seven Pounds” (a New York magazine critics poll named it the year’s worst movie), killing any hopes of awards traction.

“Sony went too fast too soon, and it hurt the movie,” says an awards campaign consultant. “The movie wasn’t terrible, but they created outsized expectations. ‘Valkryie,’ meanwhile, adjusted the expectations, and that helped it perform.”

Adjusting expectations is central to an Oscar campaign, but optimism often rules the day in deciding whether or not to go for broke.

“My view is: In for a penny, in for a pound,” says Michele Robertson, whose firm, MRC, handles Warner Bros. awards campaigns. “There’s no sense in taking half measures.”

Adds Tony Angellotti, whose PR company works with Universal and Disney: “I’ve worked on four movies that have won best picture. And in most of those cases, you knew when you first saw it that it was special.”

Looks can sometimes be deceiving, however. Entering the fall, Ridley Scott’s A-list thriller “Body of Lies” and Baz Luhrmann’s epic romance “Australia” were both considered Academy bait, as was Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” which stirred up great buzz when it played at the Cannes Film Festival. To a lesser extent, “Defiance,” “Che” and “Synecdoche, New York” were also considered strong candidates in several Oscar categories, and “Revolutionary Road,” Sam Mendes’ tony portrait of a troubled marriage, figured to be a sure-fire picture contender.

Only “Body of Lies” pulled out of the Oscar race before release, its handlers deciding that, like “Valkyrie,” it was better positioned as a popcorn movie. The others moved forward, but despite strong campaigns (and spending) for Paramount Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road” and “Defiance,” neither movie caught on with Academy voters. (“They just weren’t well-liked enough,” says Oscar pundit Sasha Stone.) Critics were so-so on “Changeling,” “Che” and “Synecdoche” and roasted “Australia” on the barbie.

Although much is said these days about the demise of the film critic, the middling reviews mattered. Neither IFC (which distributed “Che”) nor Sony Pictures Classics (“Synecdoche”) are awash in cash. The firm 42 West mounted a campaign for “Che” star Benicio Del Toro, but it correctly gauged the strength of the lead actor category and re-evaluated its plans. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox took out a few ads for “Australia” but realized it had stronger awards-season candidates in Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler.”

No looking back

Some campaign decisions are predetermined, which means a film can appear to linger beyond its Oscar expiration date. The Academy divides up its screening calendar into two sections, the first running from Oct. 15 to Nov. 30 and the second from Dec. 1 to Jan. 11. Once screening rooms are paid for (and they need to be booked far in advance), studios have no choice but to press ahead.

Every so often, however, it all becomes worth it. That’s because for all the talk of precursors — awards from critics groups, SAG nominations, Golden Globes and the like — nominations can often be won simply from doing the legwork and getting Academy members to see the movie. That was the case last year with Laura Linney, who got a lead actress nomination for Fox Searchlight’s “The Savages” despite being snubbed by everyone else.

That was also true this year for the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader,” to many a surprise nominee for best picture. Positive reactions from Academy members convinced Weinstein to continue campaigning.

So while critics retain relevance, occasionally a movie can have an impact that transcends reviews. “Ghost” and “Chocolat” are examples of feel-good movies that Academy members loved despite mixed notices. Lionsgate was ready to pull the campaign for the so-so-reviewed “Crash” after the Golden Globes ignored the film, but execs pushed ahead, listening to the strong buzz coming from Academy screenings.

“You do the work, and then you’re open for the magic to happen,” Robertson says. “And sometimes it does.”

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