Awards Season Launch: The Best Picture Race

And the Academy Award for best picture goes to … a “festival film.” For four years in a row, that’s been the case on Oscar night: “The King’s Speech,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “No Country for Old Men” all premiered at film festivals. Previously, sprocket operas may have helped boost the likes of “American Beauty” (1999) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), but they were far from the widespread promotional platform that they have become today — and not only for independent films, but studio projects, as well.

Witness Paramount’s surprise screening of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” at the New York Film Festival, which generated lots of chatter building up to the film’s unveiling and strong buzz from the cinephile audience. Or Warner Bros.’ late fall launch of Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” at the AFI Film Festival.

And yet, this year’s fest circuit has done more to eliminate than illuminate potential contenders, with negative reviews undermining several big titles, while, leaving the year’s remaining players in “a race to be last,” as some pundits put it.

Among those delaying their release dates until as late as possible, neither Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” nor Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” were ready in time for fall fest berths. David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey” remain to be seen. And Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” conspicuously avoided the Telluride-Toronto launch that catapulted his previous two features, “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” into the awards race.

“Because the end of the year is crowded, you want to get early awareness, and if you feel you have a movie that has the steam to go the distance, it’s definitely everybody’s strategy,” says David Glasser, COO of the Weinstein Co., which has several contenders on the circuit, from “The Artist” to “My Week With Marilyn.”

Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer also believes Oscar talk has increased in recent years. “Ever since ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Capote,’ there’s been this anticipation: Are we going to pick up films that are going to get nominations and awards?” he says.

But Meyer and other programmers say Academy buzz has little effect on their programming.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree if you think the New York Film Festival is looking to influence the award season,” says NYFF selection committee member Scott Foundas, who wrote the first rhapsodic review of “The Social Network” tied to its NYFF preem last year, but insists the new film by Alain Resnais is just as likely to end the festival as this year’s closer, the latest kudo contender by Alexander Payne, “The Descendants.”

Some critics complain that festivals have become overwhelmed by Oscar talk; as the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis recently grumbled, “It’s a drag how late-summer, early-fall festivals like Telluride and especially Toronto are now too often seen as warm-ups for the Oscars.”

But Toronto co-director Cameron Bailey doesn’t have a problem with festivals playing a role in awards campaigns. “I don’t think art should be a competitive game,” he says. “But I like that awards give people a focus, and allow them to recognize what they think is the highest quality work of the year.”

According to Bailey, distributors are far less explicit with their Oscar goals, mostly because it’s just too early in the race: “The fact is that all the movies that launched here were a long shot. Whether ‘American Beauty’ or ‘King’s Speech,’ you probably would not have been able to say this is a best picture. There’s just too much unpredictability.”

Even so, festivals will sometimes work with producers and distributors to position a film. For example, Bailey believes TIFF made “a significant difference” for Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” “I didn’t want to play it niche; I wanted to play it in one of our bigger houses. And I think having the film in that context did a lot to open it up to a wider audience,” he says.

“The Descendants” producer Jim Burke also hails the benefits of the fest experience, particularly for smaller films that require word of mouth. “For this sort of movie, we need people to see it and tell their friends to see it.” It also helps to have George Clooney at your screenings.

Indeed, a couple of festival launches were stymied this year because of actors’ unavailability. “J. Edgar,” for example, may have pushed harder to screen earlier if Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t shooting “The Great Gatsby” in Australia. Likewise, Focus Features’ “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” could have garnered some high-profile domestic fest slots after premiering in Venice had star Gary Oldman not been on the set of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

But Focus CEO James Schamus says, “It’s not such a big deal. We like festivals, and they can be very useful, but when you have the goods, when you have the quality, people will find the film.”

AWARD SEASON LAUNCH:

Acad muzzles the clink and guzzle scene | New rules redraw Oscar’s picture, doc, toon races | Tricky pics spend years en route | Fest test weeds out all but Oscar’s best

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