Universal is having a banner year in terms of box office, but will that translate into awards?
It’s too early for definitive statements, but the success of the Universal slate means people have seen and liked the studio’s films — and, contrary to public opinion, awards voters are human. The studio has two Oscar best-picture possibilities in “Straight Outta Compton” and “Steve Jobs,” and has at least eight other films with awards potential in various categories.
And that’s not even counting its specialty division Focus Features, whose contenders include “Suffragette” and, even stronger, “The Danish Girl.”
Here’s an overview of U’s films.
Straight Outta Compton
In light of Ferguson and other uprisings, “Compton” is one of the timeliest films of the year. With a budget under $30 million and a box office of $200 million and counting, it is also a mega-hit. As a bonus, awards voters are still buzzing about the movie, three months after its opening. The movie covers the creation and eventual disbanding of music group N.W.A — a microcosm of its time and place. It has across-the-board awards potential, including picture, director F. Gary Gray, screenplay (by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, with story by S. Leigh Savage, Alan Wenkus and Berloff) and all artisan categories. Attention to the actors in lead or supporting is possible, as is a nom for SAG ensemble; the actors are mostly unknown, all of them succeeding in difficult roles. Director Gray told Variety he was grateful to Donna Langley and the Universal team, who had asked him what film he wanted to make; when he outlined all his plans, he added a note of caution: “There is no guarantee for a return on investment,” with lack of star names. That was a thoughtful warning, but unnecessary. Execs at Universal and Legendary have seen great returns that could keep on giving during awards season.
The film from Universal (which also worked with Legendary) got generally positive reviews (85% on RottenTomatoes), but many in the media have been strangely apoplectic (the L.A. Times ran three stories in one week blasting it). But Oscar voters are not bloggers/reporters, and they seem to appreciate the expert work above and below the line. It’s not a stick-to-the-facts bio, but more like “Variations on a Theme by Walter Isaacson,” as director Danny Boyle and scripter Aaron Sorkin offer a daring and theatrical retelling of the Isaacson bio. Boyle and Sorkin, both theater veterans, use an unusual three-act structure to tell the story of the Apple founder who led a digital revolution thanks to his sense of design, marketing and user-friendliness. Voters in virtually every category will find awards fodder in the film.
It’s kind of “The Parent Trap” of gangster films, but better. Writer-director Brian Helgeland has fashioned a smart film about the Kray brothers, real-life thugs in 1960s London. When “Legend” screened at the Toronto festival in September, the No. 1 talking point was Tom Hardy’s great work, which is likely to remain the film’s big asset during awards season. Hardy creates two distinct brothers. The film’s artisan team worked hard to make its efforts invisible: It allowed the two Hardys to interact in frequent scenes, which is trickier than it sounds. StudioCanal and Working Title are also bullish on the film and upbeat about its awards chances.
The expert Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has helmed an actioner with plenty of suspense, even though the facts of the 1996 events are known. The actors are good, but the real stars are the below-the-line team, including cinematographer Salvatore Totino, editor Mick Audsley, composer Dario Marianelli and the sound team. Production designer Gary Freeman melded all the various locations (Nepal, Italy, and sets at Pinewood in London and Cinecitta in Rome) into a unified look. Their work can be appreciated on screeners, but it’s worth seeing on the big screen. No matter where awards voters see it, the film is so atmospheric and effective, they should keep a sweater nearby.
The movie features stunning below-the-line work on every level. When Paul Walker died during production, the logical solution would be to either overhaul the script or to film his scenes with another actor in longshot, with digital face-replacement. But the producers and below-the-line team did something more extraordinary. They gathered a library of Walker footage and replaced his face, body and voice with 350 shots to simulate his performance, even in closeup. The tribute to Walker in the film’s finale guarantees a real rarity: An action film that makes you cry. The voters in the guilds and Academy know below-the-line work is hard, but this was off-the-charts challenging.
Sound, editing, music, production design: The film’s top-notch work uses the game-changing 1993 original as a starting point, but the below-the-line teams added their own flourishes and utilized technical innovations of the past few decades. Also crucial is the vfx work from ILM, which created new dinosaurs and updated the old ones.
Oscar’s animation race is always unpredictable and the film from Illumination Entertainment (under topper Chris Meledandri) has tough competition this year. But the $1.15 billion box office indicates an obvious fact: People love these characters and love this film. That affection and admiration could carry into the awards race.
Fifty Shades of Grey and Pitch Perfect 2
Neither of these films was intended as Oscar bait (or even critics’ bait), but both achieved what they set out to do — and found big box office (under directors Sam Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Banks, respectively). The BTL work is consistently good and so are the soundtracks, which could draw interest from awards voters.
Amy Schumer has been ubiquitous, with her Comedy Central TV series and HBO comedy special. She is likely to stick around for awards season, thanks to “Trainwreck,” the summer hit movie. Her script and performance put her in awards contention, particularly the Globes comedy categories.