January 10, 2013

OSCAR STRATEGIES: What the Nominees Are Doing–and Should Be


OK, so you’ve got your Best Picture nomination.  You’re one of the chosen 9 films with a chance to reap the glory (and success) that follows an Academy Award win.  You’ve got 46 days until the awards are given out, and 41 days until the polls close.  What do you do now?  Here, title by title, are some notes and suggestions.  We’ll check up regularly on whether, and how well, the nominees are following our advice.

LINCOLN:  So far, everything has played out perfectly for Lincoln.  There were two fears before it opened:  that Steven Spielberg, by making it too “Spielbergian,” wouldn’t be able to pull the movie off, and that even if he did, audiences would consider it a dry “history lesson” and stay away.  Both have proven to be groundless, as the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive (aside from a few vicious naysayers, and they serve their purpose too), and the boxoffice has been better than anyone could have imagined.  Today Lincoln won more nominations than any other picture, and it’s the clear frontrunner.  So what is there to worry about?  Just this:  frontrunners don’t always win.  There was a time when The Social Network was supposed to beat The King’s Speech, and Avatar was a sure thing over The Hurt Locker. Let’s not even mention Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love, which would hit a little close to home.   Lincoln has been in wide release for nearly 2 months, and there’s going to be an inevitable slowing of momentum in the next few weeks while other movies expand, a potential feeling of a “prevent defense” kicking into gear.  If things start to go sideways–if the Golden Globes or Guild awards start moving in the wrong direction–it may be time to step up the marketing, and maybe get Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis (good luck with the latter) into the field…

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: …because Harvey Weinstein, the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of Oscar campaigning, is lying in wait.  Weinstein’s release strategy on Silver Linings, if it plays out, could end up being the greatest long con ever.  The movie opened around Thanksgiving, but it’s been in limited release ever since, accumulating just $36M to date.  It’s been biding its time, and will continue to do so for another week–and then on January 18, it’ll fly into wide release, just as America’s New Sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence is hosting Saturday Night Live (and oh, she’s on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly for her other little project, the sequel to The Hunger Games). If Silver Linings suddenly becomes a popular hit, it could become the movie with momentum, just as Academy voters are casting their ballots.  The trick for Silver Linings is convincing the Academy that it’s not just an offbeat rom-com, it’s also a picture with something meaningful to say about mental illness and family.  (Which it really isn’t, but so what?)  Considering that the voters clearly like it a whole lot already–it’s the only picture with nominations in Picture, Director, Screenplay and all 4 Acting categories–if it can be the “feel-good” alternative to the weightier Lincoln, it could pull off a giant upset.  Unlikely?  Tell that to Saving Private Ryan.

ZERO DARK THIRTY:  The single biggest surprise of this year’s nominations was the frankly outrageous omission of Kathryn Bigelow from the Best Director category.  History says that this fact alone kills Zero‘s chances of winning Best Picture, since the last time a movie won Picture without even a nomination for its director was Driving Miss Daisy in 1989, and that was a small-scale film that wasn’t perceived as director-centric.  But could the sheer craziness of the Academy’s slight help Zero in the long-run?  It’s not hard to imagine Bigelow scoring a protest win at the Directors Guild, which did nominate her (in which case she’d beat Spielberg–the DGA didn’t nominate Silver Lining‘s David O. Russell).  Another imponderable:  will the political attacks and investigations into Zero‘s depiction of torture and access to CIA files hurt or help it?  To have a realistic chance, Zero probably needs something else to go its way, like a surprise Golden Globes win this weekend.  It’ll also need to make some serious inroads at the boxoffice when it goes wide tomorrow.

LES MISERABLES:  The lack of nominations for director Tom Hooper and the screenwriters hurts a lot, and in a way, so does the near-certain win for Anne Hathaway as Supporting Actress, since that allows voters to feel that “at least it’s getting something” when they vote against it.  All the studio can do is play up the popular appeal of the film, which will be one of the 3 or 4 most successful movie musicals in history, and its epic scope.  An all-important first step:  beating Silver Linings in the Comedy/Musical category at Sunday’s Golden Globes.

ARGO:  If Warners had it to do again, would it have opened Argo in September?  The flood of strong holiday-season films seems to have pushed the movie into the relative background, and a theatrical re-release this weekend isn’t likely to help.  Also, the fact that Zero Dark Thirty is similarly-themed, however different in tone, contributes to making Argo feel like old news.  Clearly, Ben Affleck’s omission from the list of nominated directors is a dismal sign.  What Argo has going for it is that it really is one of the year’s best-liked, most enjoyable pictures, and for it to have any shot at all, the studio needs to play up those positive memories.

LIFE OF PI:  The second most honored picture of the day, with 11 nominations, but a tough one to position for major wins, because it didn’t feature a single nominated performance, loading up instead in technical categories, along with picks for director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee.  Also, although it’s been a blockbuster hit overseas, Pi has been just moderately successful in the US, with the kind of boxoffice ratio (roughly 3:1) usually seen only for action movies and cartoons.  Visual spectacle mixed with vague but hopeful philosophy are the keys to Pi‘s appeal, and if it’s to move up from underdog (undertiger?) status, Fox will need to press hard on those points.

DJANGO UNCHAINED:  Strike one:  as much as Harvey W loves all of his children, this year he seems to love Silver Linings just a little bit more.  Strike two:  no Director nomination for Tarantino.  However, Django may soon have the distinction of being the biggest hit among the nominees, or at least neck-and-neck with Lincoln, so that’s a selling point.  It’s also chock-full of great, colorful performances, both nominated and not, which could help it with the Actors branch of the Academy.  Honestly, though–this probably isn’t QT’s year, except possibly for Original Screenplay.

AMOUR:  The Academy clearly has strong feelings for this dark drama, nominating Actress Emmanuelle Riva and Director/Screenwriter Michael Haneke as well as the film itself.  Its themes of old age and approaching death, not to put too fine a point on it, very possibly resonate with quite a few voters.  It’s not clear how much campaigning the 85-year old Riva will be willing or able to do, or how much Haneke will want to participate in salesmanship tactics, but pushing the prestige and power of the film and its near-universal acclaim (in very classy ways) are clearly the way to go.  The Academy has never given a foreign-language film the award for Best Picture, but in recent years it’s awarded the partially subtitled Slumdog Millionaire and the silent, intertitled The Artist, so who knows?

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD:  It’s been a fantastic ride for this tiny-budgeted Sundance acquisition, and the nominations today for Actress, Director and Screenplay indicate that Beasts has a serious depth of admirers within the Academy–particularly impressive because it opened all the way back in June (although the recent homevideo release presumably helped with that). This is probably a be-happy-you’re-nominated situation, but there’s no dog more under- than this one, and its scrappy, visionary, original appeal shouldn’t be completely ignored.   Fox Searchlight doesn’t have any other contenders on its plate, freeing it to push the film strongly and hope for the best.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."