Wall Street's collapse is hitting Sunset Boulevard, narrowing the field for Best Picture. Is Australia coming too late? Plus, watch the Oscar movie trailers.
Come February, Harvey Weinstein could be vindicated in his epic battle with super producer Scott Rudin over the release date of their Oscar bait film The Reader.
Weinstein fought like crazy to have the film—which stars Kate Winslet as an ex-Nazi war criminal—released earlier than planned in order to squeeze it into theaters before the end of the year, and qualify for the 2008 Oscar race.
Now, as Oscar buzz builds around the movie, it’s looking like a smart call. While almost any serious movie about Third Reich guilt that doesn’t star Tom Cruise stands a decent shot come Academy Award time, The Reader has an extra advantage in this year’s race: the competition is weak.
Despite its lowbrow superhero pedigree, The Dark Knight has stepped into the Best Picture void thanks to huge box office, critical acclaim and Heath Ledger.
With only seven weeks left to qualify for Hollywood’s biggest dog and pony show, Wall Street’s collapse is hitting Sunset Boulevard. As studios scramble to reign in costs, the slowdown is changing the dynamics of the Oscar race, and narrowing the Best Picture field.
Since full-fledged Oscar campaigns can break the bank, some studios are pushing potential Academy Award into 2009, taking them out of the running. Paramount’s The Soloist, an uplifting tale of a schizo, homeless violinist, and Weinstein’s The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s soul-crushing apocalypse novel, have both been pushed back to next year.
And to cut back on publicity costs, an unusually high number of films are also being released late in the season, which means they may not have time to build the word-of-mouth momentum to clinch votes. Many of this year’s potential nominees---including Brad-Pitt-Ages-Backwards-Epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Winslet and Dicaprio re-team Revolutionary Road, Will Smith weepie Seven Pounds, Baz Luhrmann’s war pic Australia, and Clint Eastwood’s second film in as many months, Gran Torino—have yet to be screened for critics.
Further narrowing the field, a number of big films with Academy Award pretensions have already crashed and burned in theaters. Oliver Stone’s W., Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and Eastwood’s Changeling are only viable in the acting categories, not for the Best Picture slot.
Paramount’s decision to push Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.’s The Soloist into March was largely a money move. (Though not entirely —rumor has it that schlocky film kept posting worse and worse test screening scores). “In years past, Paramount might have spent the money to see how The Soloist did,” says Variety’s Anne Thompson to The Daily Beast. “But this year, because of the economy, Paramount took a good hard look at their numbers, and decided they didn’t need to spend it.”
Opening a film late and hiding it from critics and insiders has its advantages. It saves money by letting studios skip months of publicity. This may explain why Warner Bros and Sony, in addition to Paramount, are pursuing the strategy for Seven Pounds and Gran Torino.
But the late release schedule for many of this year’s films carries risks. Though it worked for Shakespeare In Love and Million Dollar Baby, both of which were under radar until they opened (and then had all the momentum when Academy voters were casting their ballots), it can be hard to derail a popular film that’s had months to shore up support.
That’s exactly what’s happening with The Dark Knight, which, despite its lowbrow superhero pedigree, has stepped into the Best Picture void thanks to huge box office, critical acclaim and Heath Ledger.
The Dark Knight is exactly the kind of film that may help the Academy itself, which makes revenue off the Oscar telecast, weather the financial crisis. Ratings for the tinsel town extravaganza tend to correlate with the popularity of the films nominated. Last year 32 million Americans tuned in to see indie No Country for Old Men win in the least watched awards ceremony ever. In 1998, 55.3 million people watched all-time box office champ Titanic triumph in the most watched awards ceremony ever. Dark Knight, easily the highest grossing film of the year, could be a corrective to last year’s poor showing, hugely boosting the ratings. The Oscar recession that’s serving up less competition for this juggernaut of a Batman film, just might be good for the Oscars after all.
Below, a brief look at some of the contenders (and losers) of the season.
The RIGHT ON TRACKS—Best Picture hopefuls seemingly unaffected by the recession.
The Reader, December 12, 2008
Storyline: Kate Winslet stars as an emotionally traumatized former Nazi prison guard with a secret.
Status: Despite notorious tantrum throwers Harvey Weinstein and super producer Scott Rudin’s highly publicized throw down about the film’s release date (Harvey won) it’s getting decent word of mouth as a legit best picture contender, exactly as Weinstein hoped.
The Dark Knight, July 18, 2008
Storyline: You know...Batman.
Status: All of the late releases have been a huge boost to Dark Knight’s chance, giving it time to step into the Best Picture void despite its low subject matter, thanks to mega-sales and a posthumous Heath Ledger. The Academy would be psyched to see this film get a nomination, as it’s sure to boost the telecast’s sagging viewership with comic book obsessives.
Wall-E, June 27, 2008
Storyline: The future’s cutest little robot finds love, saves mankind.
Status: The delayed releases have also helped this animated film, which probably wouldn’t be discussed as a best picture possibility if there were plenty of live-action films worth considering. That said, it remains very difficult for a film with no actors to get a nomination because actors make up the majority of voters and don’t love seeing their jobs usurped by special effects.
Milk, December 5, 2008
Storyline: Bio-pic about America’s first openly gay elected official, the assassinated Harvey Milk.
Status: Despite some speculation that Focus Features was hiding the movie for fear of negative homophobic attention, recent strong reviews in the trade papers have positioned it for a strong run.
Frost/Nixon, December 5, 2008
Storyline: Dramatization of Richard Nixon’s post-Watergate interview with David Frost.
Status: Buzz says Frank Langella may get an acting nod for playing Nixon, and other nominations may follow.
Doubt, December 12, 2008
Storyline: Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play about the struggle between a nun and a priest over suspected sexual abuse.
Status: Stars Oscar queen Meryl Streep. Enough said.
The MAYBES—Theoretical contenders with penny-pinching late release dates; could be like Million Dollar Baby —a real contender—or Lions for Lambs —an instance of over-inflated expectations.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, December 25, 2008
Storyline: Brad Pitt ages backwards in David Fincher’s three-hour, century spanning epic.
Status: Considered to be the ultimate front-runner even though almost no one has seen it. Shares some qualities with Forest Gump (a “unique” protagonist winding his way through history) which could be good—Gump won a lot of Oscars—or bad—it didn’t deserve to. Jeff Wells, proprietor of film blog Hollywood-Elsewhere, has spoken with some of the few souls who have seen it and believes it will go all the way: “I’ve heard from over 40 straight guys that it made then cry. When they’re crying, you’ve got the winner.”
Australia, November 26, 2008
Storyline: Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman get romantic in Baz Luhrmann’s $100 million dollar epic set Down Under during WWII.
Status: Three weeks from its release date, and the only person who has seen this movie (still in unfinished form) is Oprah. Luhrmann isn’t done editing yet and has compared finishing in time for the release date to “landing a jumbo jet on an aircraft carrier in a storm.” Needless to say, this does not bode well.
Revolutionary Road, December 25, 2008
Storyline: Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio team up for the first time since Titanic in an adaptation of Richard Yate’s ennui-ridden novel about a couple trying to avoid conformity in 1950s America.
Status: Director Sam Mendes has had luck with tales of suburban malaise before: his American Beauty took home a gold statue. But word of mouth on this film has been yo-yoing, which is to be expected, since no one’s seen it either. It may lose some momentum if The Reader, also starring Winslet, gets good notices.
Seven Pounds, December 19, 2008
Storyline: Will Smith reteams with the director of Pursuit of Happyness to play a depressed IRS agent (is there any other kind?) who decides to help seven strangers.
Status: Another flick no one has seen and isn’t being much discussed because the trailer makes it look cheesy. But never count out box office Midas Will Smith.
Gran Torino, December 17, 2008
Storyline: Clint Eastwood goes a little Dirty Harry on us as a grizzled Korean War vet who tries to reform the teenager that stole his favorite gun.
Status: Last time Clint acted in one of his films and then hid it from critics and audiences until the end of December, the picture, Million Dollar Baby, won it all.
The DISAPPOINTMENTS—Best Picture hopefuls, until they opened
Body of Lies, October 10, 2008
Storyline: Leonardo Dicaprio and Russell Crowe play trans-Atlantic cat and mouse in this Middle East-based thriller directed by Ridley Scott.
Status: Leo and Russell in a timely, serious film seems like guaranteed Oscar bait, but piddling box office ($37 million) and bad reviews (It was described by the New York Times as a “grinding tedium”) axed its chances.
Changeling, October 31, 2008
Storyline: Mega macha Angelina Jolie shimmers in Clint Eastwood’s film about a mother who (rightly) refuses to believe her kidnapped son has been returned to her.
Status: a Cloche-wearing Jolie is still viable in the Best Actress category, but the film itself doesn’t seem to have the legs for a Best Picture run—especially with Eastwood’s Gran Torino coming out in December.
Willa Paskin is a writer and former editor of Radar magazine. She lives in New York City.