The race isn't over until they open the envelope

Academy Award nominations will be unveiled Tuesday, which means the race is on. Or is it?

Last year, “The Hurt Locker” had won nearly everything before noms were unveiled and emerged the big winner on Oscar night. And conventional wisdom this year seems to say that Sony’s “The Social Network” is unstoppable, with its Jan. 16 Golden Globe win the latest in a long prize-gathering streak for the film.

Having the aura of a winner creates a big advantage. So who could possibly doubt “Social Network’s” invincibility? Well, the “Social Network” people, actually.

Sony is planning an aggressive Phase Two campaign, and the Globes acceptance speeches indicated a possible new strategy. Previously, the mantra was that “Social” was the film of the year because it captured the zeitgeist. But in accepting their HFPA awards, scripter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin separately stressed that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg liked the film. The underlying message: Forget that Zuckerberg blasted the film when it opened! This is a loving film! It’s a film endorsed by Time’s man of the year! (As added measure, Sorkin concluded his Globes speech with a non-sequitur salute to powerful women, perhaps a retort to criticism of the film’s depiction of females).

Who else is unconvinced about the supposed primacy of “The Social Network”? The teams behind the Weinstein Co.’s “The King’s Speech” and Paramount-Relativity’s “The Fighter,” among others.

They, too, are planning extensive campaigns, aware that an unbroken streak is no guarantee of anything. Past awards races provide lessons for everyone. Witness the nonstop victories of “L.A. Confidential,” though “Titanic” ended up with the Academy Award. Similarly, “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Aviator” had strong kudos momentum but were stopped cold by “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby,” respectively.

In each of those cases, a film that was widely admired lost out to a pic that touched hearts. If that holds true, the prognosis is very good for “King’s Speech” and “Fighter.”

History has shown that Oscar voters have a mind of their own.

Harvey Weinstein could have easily campaigned on the zeitgeist factor as well: The king’s stuttering wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the dawn of radio. In other words, “The king was just like us, trying to cope with tech changes!” But instead of going for the “hip” factor, the “Speech” team is emphasizing the film’s timeless quality: This is a study of people overcoming obstacles. It’s not about zeitgeist, it’s about relationships and the human spirit.

“Fighter” is similarly pushing the one man’s-struggle aspect of the plot. And, since every film has a backstory that enhances its allure to voters, the “Fighter” campaign also reminds folks of the fact that it took Mark Wahlberg 10 years to get the film made.

The media that cater to consumers have either declared the race over or else have framed this as a two-way race: “King’s Speech” vs. “Social Network,” Weinstein vs. Rudin, indie vs. studio, classic storytelling vs. zeitgeist.

And while it may be fun to create such imaginary showdowns, it’s ultimately foolish. For 2002 films, pundits insisted that the actor prize was a fight to the finish between Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) and Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”), while the director trophy was a toss-up between first-time helmer Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) or vet Martin Scorsese (“Gangs”). These were characterized in the media as tight two-way races. But the winners in the acting and helmer categories, respectively, turned out to be Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski, both for “The Pianist.”

So, as a reminder that Oscar is full of surprises, other pics are reminding voters that they’re in contention.

Acad voters have a reputation for rejecting animated films, but Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3″ team has a simple strategy: “Toon-schmoon. It doesn’t matter, because you know you loved this movie.” (And few would argue with that.)

Par’s “True Grit” strategists know that remakes generally don’t do well in the best-pic race, so the mantra has always been “This isn’t a remake, it’s an adaptation of the novel.”

Those folks are smart to defy conventional wisdom. Awards pundits used to say Oscar voters would never go for a fantasy film, a foreign-language film, a violent film, but “Lord of the Rings,” “Slumdog Millionaire” (with one-third of its dialogue in Hindi) and “The Departed”and “No Country for Old Men” disproved them.

As the countdown to Oscar night begins, expect more mudslinging, because that’s when awards strategists can take aim at specific competitors. And since actors comprise 20% of the AMPAS voting membership (1,292 members of the 6,251 total), you can be sure thesps will be at the center of the campaigning.

All of the films will try to find the tricky balance of emphasizing the actors’ important contributions to the films without diminishing the contributions of the writers, directors and others.

The Jan. 30 SAG Awards will be interesting, but don’t expect a clear omen: SAG ensemble winners have segued to Oscar wins in only seven of the past 15 years.

The field of contenders is crowded. None is a shoo-in to win, but each has ardent followers. And you don’t have to win over every AMPAS voter to take the top prize — just enough of them.

Campaigns have two goals: To get voters to see the film and remind them why they liked it. It’s risky to change a campaign angle midseason, because the attempt to be all things to all people could dilute the original message.

But with the recent-ish shift in Oscar dates and last year’s expansion to 10 best-pic nominees, a lot of the old rules may have changed.

So don’t place your bets when the nominations are unveiled Tuesday. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email timothy.gray@variety.com

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