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Studios Raise the Awards Stakes With Quality Movies

A funny thing happened on the way to major studios’ predicted demise: They started making some excellent movies.

Whether through serendipity or survival instinct, studios have already managed to release more than a dozen major Oscar contenders, and 2017 is far from over. It’s still early, and usually coming up with lists only makes trouble, but based on conversations with consultants, executives, producers and other veterans of the Oscar trenches, we can identify the following studio releases as pictures of interest: “Wonder Woman,” “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Blade Runner: 2049,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “Baby Driver,” “Logan,” “mother!” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Still on deck for fourth-quarter release are “The Post,” “Downsizing,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and “All the Money in the World.” (Disney’s holiday tandem of “Coco” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” are also intriguing wild cards.)

Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Warner Bros., says the studio has often been a factor in the Oscar race over the past couple of decades, even during stretches when rivals have withdrawn. The record reflects that, with best picture wins for films like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Departed” and high nomination totals for others such as “Gravity,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Mystic River.” This year, she notes, “it’s much more competitive overall. I really like that. There have been a lot of wonderful, small, artistic films getting recognized lately, which is great, but this year has been such a strong year for films connecting with large audiences.”

One reason for so many love connections, many studio vets say, is the rising bar of expectations. Audiences who agree to get off their couches expect to be rewarded, both in commercial megaplexes and industry screenings rooms, given how much cinema-grade quality there is across the media spectrum.
“For many years, studios could remake a movie they had made before and see fair to good results,” says Hutch Parker, a producer on “Logan” who ran production at Fox from 1999 to 2008. “There was a middling quality that simply doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. You see films that are quite large and disappear quickly.”
Recent studio outings — here Parker cites films such as “The Revenant,” “The Martian” and “Hidden Figures” — suggest that studios realize they need to step up in the prestige arena even as they seek IP-rich universes that can unlock billions in revenue. “Cable is doing bold original work and raising the bar, and the streaming services as well,” Parker says. “There has been a collective awakening to that.”

While the annals of Academy campaigns show many cyclical patterns, the past two decades have been weighted toward indie or specialty winners — think of just the last three, “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “Birdman.” In this decade, only “Argo” from Warner Bros. has gone the distance to win best picture, though majors’ titles have gotten plenty of exposure since the best picture category expanded from five to as many as 10 nominees a year starting in 2009.

There are many reasons why filmdom’s Davids have tended to prevail over media Goliaths. For starters, campaigns are long and competitive, requiring hand-crafting, finesse and course-correction — precious resources for studios owned by massive companies with many other priorities. There is also the sheer hit to the balance sheet. For films with golden aspirations, campaigns can run into the tens of millions, though campaigners eschew any talk of the financials.

Convincing layers of bosses that such an outlay brings certain ROI can be a challenge for companies facing relentless competition from Silicon Valley and a constant need to shore up their share prices. “We have to be fiscally responsible,” says Kroll, who, like others interviewed for this story, declined to discuss the financials. “In the past, it’s been a little bit out of control. It has to make sense.”

Wonder Woman Oscar Awards Season
CREDIT: Andrew Archer

Boutique companies operate lower to the ground and are generally more nimble by nature. Independents like A24, whose “Moonlight” ran a winning race last season, or affiliates of majors like Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics, are operations with awards savvy in their DNA. A24 has already entered the race with the acclaimed “The Florida Project” in theaters now and Searchlight has no less than two strong contenders already with “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” earning raves on the festival circuit. Likewise, Sony Classics staked out an early spot when “Call Me By Your Name” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

New elements this year are Netflix and Amazon, whose slates have steadily improved and who are bringing forth not just titles with potential in a category or two but broad threats to the establishment. Netflix is backing another Sundance hit, “Mudbound,” and Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” while Amazon has “The Big Sick” and “Wonderstruck” among their titles. Plus, as in so many other arenas, they have war chests. Notes one veteran top exec of the streaming services, “There is some value in putting forth a real Academy campaign. It goes to their entire business strategy.”

The people backing this year’s bumper crop of hopefuls, though, believe that the landscape has shifted. They also feel that gunning for Oscar glory can be as logical a business decision as picking release dates, developing creative and performing a studio’s other basic functions. It should be, as it was for decades in Hollywood, woven into the fabric of what studios do.

“If you’re building your strategy correctly, the Academy piece of it should be a way to strengthen the overall business of the movie,” says Megan Colligan, president of worldwide distribution and marketing at Paramount, which has had a solid run of top-shelf contenders during her decade or so at the studio. “The idea is to support and reflect that with your release. It’s all part and parcel of the movie.”

Parker has experienced Oscar season as both a producer (“Logan”) and an executive (he ran production at Fox from 1999 to 2008). “It’s good business to make movies that involve an awards element. It’s not just the financial component but it’s the talent,” he says. “In a world that’s so competitive, it can be so important to show that you’re an entity that’s willing to back these important films.”

Only in special cases — “Titanic” or “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” say — does massive box office immediately translate to the ultimate awards mojo. But having the platform of sustained commercial success injects films into the cultural conversation and can make them de facto must-sees. With “Wonder Woman” and “Get Out,” and others to a somewhat lesser extent, commercial success caught the eye of voters, not the well-established other way around. This year’s fall festivals, from Telluride to Venice to Toronto to New York turned out some distinctive work, but did not mint front-runners, as they did with eventual best picture champs like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech.”

Especially given the tumult in the last couple of years around #Oscarssowhite and deep soul-searching about the nature of the membership, the idea of recognizing a zeitgeist-y title, as opposed to a more niche work, has a logic to it. Plus, as Colligan reminds, the opening round of Oscar voting, is more “about passion” than the final round, where voters are thought to take more careful stock of their decisions.

“Artists want to make bold statements and they appreciate other artists to do bold things,” she says. That’s a big reason for the studio’s continued optimism about “mother!” despite its notorious “F” CinemaScore and box office meltdown. With not only favorable critical reviews but the kind of fervor few films elicit, the notion of building momentum through the months of critics’ groups and guild awards is legit, Paramount believes.

Keeping a movie alive from a leg-less September release such as the one “mother!” had is in some ways easier than the marathons other studio standouts will have to run. Many films face the task of re-introducing themselves to voters because their release will have been months ago. There are benefits to that — a second wave of attention when the digital distribution and home entertainment windows hit, for example — but the difficulty is trying to stay in voters’ consciousness even as dozens of rival movies spill onto screens during the annual self-selected quality movie season. “There is a whole branch of the campaign that consists of ‘Hey, remember how happy you felt watching this film? Remember what it meant to you?’” notes one consultant. “Unfortunately, that isn’t often easy to pull off given just how insanely packed all of our lives are.” Nevertheless, campaigners have gotten creative with avenues like “Saturday Night Live” or even bespoke events engineered to build affinity and trigger fond recall, though talent schedules can sometimes make those moves complex. Gal Gadot of “Wonder Woman” and, conveniently, the upcoming “Justice League,” hosted “SNL” and showed off her comedic charm.

“If you’re building your strategy correctly, the Academy piece of it should be a way to strengthen the overall business of the movie.”
Megan Colligan

“I though she did such a beautiful job,” conceded one rival campaigner. “She was just so likable and natural and I really think it helped her.” (A week later, Kumail Nanjiani, the writer-star of Amazon’s “The Big Sick,” took the hosting reins.)

At the Hamptons International Film Festival earlier this month, Universal backed an hour-long clip show looking behind the scenes of “Get Out.” Writer-director Jordan Peele was joined by the film’s two lead actors and producers Jason Blum and Sean McKittrick. In discussing the reshot ending, which changed a dark scenario of the film’s protagonist ending up in prison to the one where he is rescued by his friend, Peele nodded to the producers. “Kudos to these guys for unlocking the funds from Universal so I could go and solve this problem.”

It was a small moment, but part of the shoutouts-and-handshakes ritual of awards season. If it stands a chance at remaining a favored title, “Get Out” will have to stay aloft more than a year after its initial release, which followed a blockbuster midnight premiere a month before at Sundance. Not an easy feat.
Colligan says the strategy around campaigns needs to be thought of in terms of complementary parts. “It’s not happening in a total vacuum. People sometimes over-simplify. The campaigning creates the value for the earned media. The Golden Globes is a big show — having your clips on air, having people talk about it, that’s free advertising. For movies that come out earlier that can be an incredible lift.”

One stresser that’s hitting a few lots is having multiple serious contenders jockeying. “It’s like ‘Game of Thrones’ this year at some places,” says one campaigner. That can mean internal strife over which film is in pole position. Asked about Sony’s basket of campaignables, global marketing and distribution chief Josh Greenstein described them as “a diverse slate of films this season that encompasses the broad range of excellence that the Academy looks to embrace.”
Kroll calls the bounty at Warner Bros., with “Dunkirk,” “Wonder Woman” and “Blade Runner” leading the field “a high-class problem. All these films are worthy of attention and deserve to be in the race.”

She isn’t overly concerned about the bruised egos or intricate deliberations. To Kroll, the audience and the voters will have the ultimate say. “It’s our job to put them out there,” she says. “We will be very strategic about it but ultimately the world is going to weigh in and tell us what they think.”

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