The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has long been looking to spice up its annual Oscar telecast. The august institution may have just gotten its wish.
The best picture race is wide open, with industry heavy-hitters, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, going up against younger upstarts who are presenting some unconventional choices for Oscars. It’s possible that a black-and-white silent film from a French director and an NC-17-rated movie about sex addiction could make real runs for the gold.
And with only 15 weeks to go until ballots are due, the show again made headlines when its producer Brett Ratner resigned under pressure after he uttered an anti-gay slur. His chosen host, Eddie Murphy, dropped out Wednesday. The academy then announced that producer Brian Grazer would take over for Ratner, but the host shoes still need to be filled.
Now who thinks the Oscars are boring?
Last year at this time, the best picture Oscar fight was already a head-to-head competition. “The King’s Speech” had amassed accolades at the Toronto and Telluride film festivals, while “The Social Network” had generated 96% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and taken in more than $80 million at the box office.
This year, things are much more nebulous. First, a slew of high-profile titles largely skipped the festival circuit and have just started screening for academy voters and other tastemakers. Second, a new set of rules means that the number of best picture nominees is not fixed at five or 10, as in previous years. The number will be anywhere between five and 10, depending on how the nomination voting goes.
The uncertainty in the race means that “The Artist,” a silent dramedy from French director Michel Hazanavicius about Hollywood moviemaking and the advent of the talkies, has a real shot at a best picture nomination, as does British auteur Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” a take on sex addiction and loneliness that garnered rave reviews out of Telluride and Toronto.
But they’re going up against a crop of industry stalwarts.
Eastwood’s biopic of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, opened in limited release Wednesday and is a likely contender, as is Spielberg’s drama “War Horse,” which opens Christmas Day. Many Oscar prognosticators believe Woody Allen has secured a slot with his comedy “Midnight in Paris,” which earned the director the biggest grosses of his career. And Scorsese shouldn’t be counted out either, though the director of such dark fare as “Taxi Driver” and “The Departed” is playing against type, adapting a children’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” into the 3-D spectacle “Hugo.”
For a film to secure a best picture nomination under the new rules, at least 5% of academy voters must select it as their first-place choice on the preferential ballot. Depending on how many of the approximately 5,800 members cast nominating ballots, a clutch of 250 to 300 first-place votes might be enough.
As a result, studios are pushing films as disparate as this summer’s hit R-rated comedy “Bridesmaids” and the final installment in the Harry Potter saga, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” both of which could benefit from the new rules, which seem to favor unconventional films with ardent followings.
“We contend that ‘Bridesmaids’ deserves to be in this conversation and in this race, not because it made a lot of money but because it had a significant and unusual cultural impact and an impact on the very filmmaking community itself,” says Michael Moses, Universal Pictures’ co-president of marketing. “We hope that voters might recalibrate traditional thinking as to what is an ‘Oscar film.’”
The academy began shaking up the best picture race in 2009, when it decided to expand the category from five to 10 movies. While some criticized the move as devaluing the Oscars, it did alter voters’ perspectives as to what should qualify as a best picture contender.
“When the best picture race went to 10 films, what it did — the magic of it — is it made every film, within reason, a possible best picture candidate,” said Megan Colligan, Paramount Pictures co-president of marketing. “That’s a really good thing for the business. It’s made people more open-minded and celebratory of movies.”
The two biggest wild cards of the season are films from Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin. The New York-based Rudin has yet to begin early screenings of director David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” or director Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11 story “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” (The films are not scheduled to arrive in theaters until mid- to late December.)
Both films come with impressive pedigrees: Fincher is adapting a script from Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), and Daldry’s film, which centers on a little boy’s quest to find the lock that matches a key his father left behind after perishing in 9/11, features Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis.
With those films still under wraps, studios are seeing more opportunity than in past years when things were more certain and are being more aggressive with their campaigns.
“You need to get your film up earlier, accrue the right number of advocates,” said one high-ranking studio executive who asked not to be identified because he’s uncomfortable talking about the campaign process. “I think probably on balance, it’s better for the overall race. It’s based on the real quality of the films and the public embrace, rather than the luck of the draw.”
Oscar-watchers believe the new voting rules could benefit smaller movies, such as Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world drama “Melancholia” over the bigger spectacles or mainstream crowd-pleasers. “The films that really evoke passion will have a much better shot than ones that merely please — a ‘Melancholia,’ say, over a ‘Moneyball,’” said New York-based film critic John Anderson.
Also propelling what appears to be an increase in receptions, Q&As and screenings around town and across the country are the new campaign rules the academy has set in place, whereby the studios can directly invite members to events before the nominations are announced in January. (It used to be that they could only be invited through their various guild memberships.) But once those nominations are revealed, Academy members are not permitted to attend any event promoting a specific actor or film if the movie isn’t being screened.
“The new rules on campaigning might encourage more voters to see the movies on the big screen or at least earlier in the season,” said one veteran marketer who declined to be identified because she was not authorized to speak on the record. “But does having seven movies in the race or 10 movies in the race change things? It changes what gets in, but it doesn’t change your strategy. It’s the same strategy as always: How do I get my movie seen and how do it get it to the top?”
What films may get in could depend on where the studios with multiple films choose to spend their marketing dollars. Most of the major studios, and a few of the most prolific indie outfits, are charged with selling at least two films this Oscar season.
Sony Pictures is promoting both the well-reviewed Brad Pitt-starrer “Moneyball,” which has already earned $70 million, and “Dragon Tattoo.”
Warner Bros. has a slew of movies on its plate this season, including “Extremely Loud,” “Harry Potter,” “J. Edgar” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.” Paramount Pictures is launching campaigns for Jason Reitman’s dark comedy “Young Adult,” starring Charlize Theron as a former high-school mean girl who never grows up, and Scorsese’s “Hugo.”
In addition to “Shame,” Fox Searchlight is selling Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney, and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” DreamWorks Pictures will be hyping both “War Horse” and “The Help.”
The other contender never to be ignored is Harvey Weinstein, the man often credited with masterminding how today’s studios campaign for awards.
His company is distributing “The Artist,” which will include a heavy Oscar push, but he will also be looking for love with “My Week With Marilyn,” starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, and “The Iron Lady,” which, with Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, just received a limited Dec. 30 release date.
In the end, while the wins are meaningful, it’s the nominations that are the crucial part to the business of Hollywood — and what really helps the film’s overall box-office receipts.
“Let’s see what happens with ‘Hugo,’” said Graham King, a producer of the film, who is hoping that the film’s homage to the creation of cinema will resonate “very strongly” with Oscar voters. “It would really help us if we had some nominations on a poster.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.