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Facing Tough Voting Deadlines, ‘Silence’ Officially Enters the Oscar Race

It was hard for many to believe because there was no date, there was no poster, no trailer, but it’s true all the same: Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is officially set for a 2016 release.

An adaptation of the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, “Silence” — which stars Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Ciaran Hinds — has been a passion project for Scorsese for the better part of three decades. On paper, it has all the hallmarks of a prestige awards contender, but “on paper” can steer you wrong. Look at any number of would-be Oscar dramas that went nowhere over the years.

A source told me last month that the film was clocking in at 195 minutes at the time. Word is the studio was hoping Scorsese could cut it down, which is only natural: A 17th Century drama about Jesuit missionaries in Japan is a tough commercial sell as it is.

But there could be other concerns as it pertains to the awards calendar, namely, getting screeners out to certain voting bodies in time and hitting arbitrarily early voting windows.

Like with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was also delivered late in the game, it’s possible Paramount won’t have time to produce “Silence” screeners for the Screen Actors Guild’s nominating committee. Usually you need the film by mid-to-late October to pull that off. Otherwise, all the studio can do is hold screenings, probably the week of Nov. 21, and hope it can penetrate. (Funny, that used to be easy enough.)

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If SAG does end up a loss, though — like we saw with “Wolf,” like we saw with “Django Unchained” — it won’t matter. Even with a voting deadline that leaves plenty of time (Dec. 11), SAG nominations are hard to come by without screeners. I would chalk it up to members of the nominating committee being spread all over the country, but there are plenty in New York and Los Angeles, so that just remains a fundamental quirk of SAG-AFTRA. Maybe they don’t like leaving the house. I don’t know.

Also spread all over are members of the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., and with that group recently revealing plans to announce nominations on the obscenely early date of Dec. 1 this year (full disclosure: I’m a member), it’s fair to assume many won’t see “Silence” in time to consider it.

There will no doubt be a National Board of Review screening of the film in New York, however, in order for members to consider it for their Nov. 29 announcement. (The NBR screening deadline is Nov. 27 this year.) But if we’re being honest, the only relevance that group has been able to maintain over the years has been achieved by consistently leap-frogging other organizations in order to be first out of the gate with a rendered judgment on the year in film.

And then there’s the intrigue of Paramount’s slate. Coming into the season the studio already has a strong contender in Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” has turned into a critical darling on the festival circuit. Anyone who caught “The Magnificent Seven” in theaters this weekend saw the trailer for Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play and a film that could become Paramount’s big Oscar player. And amid the tabloid noise, Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” could stand out as a satisfying movie-movie that registers as well.

All of that serves only to make the prospect of yet another contender that much more difficult to navigate.

Of course, underneath all of that there is the actual film. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a 195-minute Martin Scorsese passion project sounds pretty fantastic to me. Three years ago the filmmaker’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker told me it was part of a spiritual trilogy of sorts with “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “Kundun” (1997). And as a story about faiths and the lengths to which you’ll go to maintain it, it will also make an interesting one-two punch for Garfield with Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” which dabbles in that territory as well.

There will be lots of narratives to explore, but for now, mark it on the calendar. Dec. 23, Scorsese’s back. Again, “on paper,” it looks like a home run. I can’t wait to find out.

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