20 Weeks To Go "Round And Round They Go..."

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20 Weeks To Go

Ass, cash, or grass… everyone pays.

Somehow, that sentiment strikes me as the theme of this year’s Oscar race. We are already deep into the race 20 weeks out. Last year at this time – the first 20 Weeks column – all five of the films that would be nominated were already represented in the top nine. The one that was not literally represented was Letters From Iwo Jima, with Flags of Our Fathers (which had not yet been seen) in its place.

Sharing the Top Nine were the unseen Dreamgirls, the unseen The Good German, World Trade Center and Little Children. The last two were both pretty much abandoned by their studios a few weeks later. But aside from The Good German being an experimental art film and Dreamgirls missing the cut, there were few surprises to come.

This season, we are already down to two unseen “big” movies and another six, two of which may not make it into the race/year at all. But more importantly, we have no fewer than 10 widely seen films that are otherwise legitimately in the Best Picture race… and only one in the entire group that opened before September 1.

I will tell you right here and right now… I am completely confident that every single one of my Top Five this week could end up not making the cut in the end. It’s that kind of year. It’s going to be a battle royale and from start to finish, it will be about the movies first and everything else second. A movie like Lars & The Real Girl or Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead will be at a serious disadvantage in the Best Picture race because the distributors don’t have the money or the experience to push through the big nomination… and they will be battling every experienced player in the game.

Yet… anything could happen.

We are in a season with no fewer than half a dozen films in the race that pay homage of a sort to the 1970s films of Sidney Lumet… and the Sidney Lumet film. We have the high art of The Diving Bell & The Butterfly and the low camp of John Travolta in drag in Hairspray. We have five - count ‘em, five! - actors turned directors in Adam Shankman, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Denzel Washington, and Rob Reiner.

We have Ang Lee, Reiner, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Bros, Francis Ford Coppola, Bob Zemeckis, Tim Burton, Redford, Todd Haynes, Jim Mangold, Ridley Scott, Paul Haggis, and Mike Nichols in play… and yet, it is quite possible (albeit somewhat unlikely) that we could have five Best Picture movies with first or second-time feature directors, including Tony Gilroy, Joe Wright, Shankman, Craig Gillespie, Jason Reitman, Tamara Jenkins, and Denzel.

Everyone pays.

But beyond all the games with stats, the harsh reality is that more than a few very good movies with legitimate Best Picture prospects are going to be left out in the cold. Last year, when the top six or seven potential nominees were tightly bunched, it seemed like a tough race. But this year, unless a lot changes in the next few weeks, the argument, for instance, that people made against Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty – which many Academy members still bring up as a film that got away – that it could not be nominated so why waste the vote, will not be able to be made as strongly against Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead… a movie so thick with good stuff that people forget to mention the great Albert Finney as one of its many attributes.

After Little Miss Sunshine’s run last year, who can make a hard argument against supporting either Juno or Lars & The Real Girl… or both?

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly is, at its core, an art film… but people find it overwhelmingly beautiful in a way you rarely hear.

How can someone claim that a vote for No Country For Old Men or Sweeney Todd or There Will Be Blood or The Savages or Youth Without Youth is wasted because the films are too dark to be nominated after The Departed won last year and a movie with some serious personal violence, Crash, won the year before?

This time of year, people who are supposed to know – and who should know better – spend a lot of time designating films with “it’s just a xxxx film,” filling the blank in “actors” or “maybe director” or “screenplay.” And the truth is, even having seen such a high percentage of the movies that will be in the race, you never know what the wave will bring until it crashes on the shore.

Already suffering serious questions because of box office performance in the last six weeks are Eastern Promises, In The Valley of Elah, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and Lust, Caution. On the flip side, 3:10 to Yuma is headed to at least $55 million domestic, inspiring Lionsgate to make a serious Best Picture run… hoping that the $53.4 million that Crash pulled in before being nominated is an omen of opportunity.

And then there is the scary place that the very well-loved Into The Wild is living right now. We’re four very cautious weeks into the run and this last weekend, with just 153 screens, up 18 from the week before, the weekend gross went down for the first time. For whatever reasons, the film just hasn’t converted into a phenom. And I like it a whole lot. So do, it seems, most who see it. But will the voters see it?

It’s not that there is a hard and fast correlation between box office and Best Picture nominations. But in the last five years, the lowest grossing film that didn’t open in December (still the best reason to hold for December) was Capote with $15.4 million. After that, it was Babel’s $23.8 million. You can go back to 1996, when Secrets & Lies made the cut with just $5.9 million… but that is a looooong time ago now and a year when the small movie run of Shine and Fargo in addition to The English Patient and Jerry Maguire was a real event.

Of course… anything can happen. But in a year as strong as this one – lots of very good movies and no absolutely unavoidable candidates – you start to look at Munich’s $40 million before nominations after opening in December, which turned out to be quite a strong gross that seasons… or The Aviator’s $58 million in that same situation… or Gangs of New York’s $70 million. It means something. And if Charlie Wilson’s War or Sweeney Todd are commercial movies, they may be that much more likely to make the cut and push out some of the smaller, perhaps better films.

On the other hand, Dreamgirls was at $79 million at the moment of nominations last year and still didn’t get it.

And so it begins… less to stand firmly on than ever before in my memory. It’s always a race, but so far, we have watched a bunch of films fall out, but none grab their invite with a strong, angry fist.

In the last three weeks, we’ve seen potential contenders Control, Sleuth, Lars & The Real Girl, Lust, Caution, The Darjeeling Limited, We Own The Night, and Michael Clayton turn up and two of the seven, maybe, are still considered “in play.” Only one, Michael Clayton, has gotten any traction in its first week. Where the film is in two more weeks will be a significant indicator of its future.

The next big test weekend is November 16, when No Country For Old Men expands, Margot at The Wedding and Love In The Time of Cholera are released, and Beowulf lands wide as a Viking’s shoulders.

Then we get the big run in mid-December, right after pretty much all the major awards group other than the Academy close nominations.

Plenty of cash will be spent. Many will feel like asses along the way. And grass? Well... whatever gets you through the next 20 weeks...

Source : David Poland

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